Images and Ruins
Through Aug. 2 at School 33
Fantasy, Reality, Utopia
through Aug. 11 at the D Center
Above School 33's Studio Artist Biennial, Images and Ruins, a small group show, highlights the physicality (and mutability) of the printed photographic image. Far from the sleek postproduction we've become accustomed to thanks to Photoshop and digital manipulation, the work in Images and Ruins relishes in the visibility of the artist's hand in cutting, painting, shredding, sanding, stitching, and tearing tangible photographs.
The first piece I came across (arriving via the back staircase) was a chaotic wallpaper of digital prints in the small installation room. The photos depict a young man pointing a gun at the camera. It's confrontational but designed to be interactive; viewers are encouraged to tear the photos from the wall. At first, it seems like the figure in the photos was the artist and that the piece was a somewhat macho gesture about authorship or futility. Upon reading the gallery guide, however, I learned that the figure was the artist's ex-boyfriend. The piece-"Surrounded," by Shannon LaRue-takes on a different connotation, suggesting an abusive relationship, liberation, and catharsis.
The works are littered with autobiographical information that takes the subject of "image as object" in a totally unexpected direction. I came in anticipating a heady examination of the formal qualities and materiality of photography. Refreshingly, curator Michelle Gomez gathered work that fulfills that function but leans towards the personal and at times poetic. This pleasant surprise is a testament to the success of MICA's Curatorial Practice MFA program (in which Gomez is a student) at pumping fresh blood and novel approaches into Baltimore's galleries.
Personal context again shines a new light on Twiggy Boyer's practice.As a whole, her series of whitewashed and collaged old photographs exudes bittersweet nostalgia. In certain images, however, the process of "whitewashing" assumes racially charged connotations. The artist collages revisionist snapshots of the past, imagining a history in which young Caucasian and African-American women stand together smiling, constructing friendships that would not have been likely in an era when photographs may have been black-and-white but when socializing was usually either/or. The supplemental text again reveals a new layer of significance; the images were sourced from family albums and her practice is intended to "mirror her confusion and fear of a lack of cultural identity."
Rather than reconstructing the past, Michael Koliner's "Shredder" disrupts one's perception of a singular present. A paper shredder reduces a strip of digital prints (presumably video stills, "animated" as a sort of proto-cinema) to a pile of linguini-like detritus. Gomez describes the work as "a reminder that every moment in time is a climax, built-up from every moment before it." The narrative, however, is as anticlimactic as they come. A figure stands in a median as cars pass by. I watched for several minutes, expecting a car crash, leap into traffic, or some other dramatic twist. Instead, the man awkwardly shifts his weight as more cars speed by, into the shredder. I have seldom been so captivated by being so bored. That paradox is the alchemy of the show: artists elevating mundane images by manipulating the materials that house them.
At the D Center, Ryan Mandell's Fantasy, Reality, Utopia uses photos as well as video and models to highlight more social but still mundane aspects of reality. The show is named after three districts in the planned new town Almere. Built on reclaimed land, Alemere is essentially the Dutch equivalent of a more tasteful, transit-connected Columbia, Md. One of its neighborhoods, De Fantasie, was conceived of in the 1980s as an architectural competition to design prototypical, temporary modular housing free from zoning restrictions or building codes. It was followed by De Realiteit (originally to be called De Fantasie II but renamed so as to avoid confusion when residents called emergency services). Although the homes were designed to be dismantled after five years, they proved popular and still stand (mostly occupied) to this day. Utopia is a nearby man-made island, a refuge of simulated wilderness, occupied solely by an observation tower and a marina.
Mandell's exhibition is roughly organized as a procession through the themes of fantasy, reality, and utopia. Each section features video the artist shot in the corresponding Almere neighborhoods. The homes in De Fantasie seem better-kept, while Mandell's lens appropriately focuses on peeling paint, rust, and overgrown gardens of De Realiteit.
The "fantasy" work focuses on American suburbia and includes a series of eerie photomontages. The images are multiple exposures of variations of the same model home replicated in one development. Slightly different gables or garage doors create a halo-like blur, removing the homes from the real and positioning them in the American dreamscape. Nearby, architectural models of McMansions float on hexagonal islands. Mandell's architectural models are impeccably crafted, adding to the effectiveness of their corruption in the reality section.
My favorite model is a geodesic dome penetrated by an off-the-rack-looking exhaust pipe. The offending addition is slathered with a tar-like sealant, evoking a DIY home improvement gone awry. Similarly, a piece that's vaguely reminiscent of a Rem Koolhaas design is impaled by an MDF two-car garage that dangles precariously off the pedestal. At the opening reception, Mandell described this work as a gesture toward the failure of architects to anticipate users' needs and the failure of homeowners to uphold an architect's vision. The pieces, however, possess the didactic implication of a rigid dichotomy between High Architecture and the public. The term "elitist" was used several times to describe the architects of places like Almere, which by most accounts is a case study in successful urban planning. It's implied that there is a consensus-based vernacular against which progressive design offends. But Mandell's photomontages of suburban homes seem to indicate that the contemporary vernacular is a constructed myth-fabricated by a hegemony of developers, zoning, and big-box home-improvement stores-an alliance that's far more sinister than an academy of planners and architects.
The exhibition dead-ends on the topic of utopia. A tower assembled from machine-cut components dominates the gallery, a flat, packable image of authority. It brings to mind less the pastoral romanticism of Almere's Utopia island than the militarized police presence of post-riot south Los Angeles. It seems to be surveying both the viewer and the final piece in the show, an incomplete model pyramid. It's not clear whether the pyramid is in progress, decay, or both. Either way, it points to futility.