According to the Arlington Arts Center's website, the exhibition IMAGE PROJECT's main goal was to "reflect the ways in which contemporary artists tend to approach photography and video". Three main uses of photography were outlined--photography as a means of documenting, photography used to present cross disciplinary projects, and photography used as a tool for inquiry into how the world is perceived.
The call for entries noted only that the artist had to live and work in the U.S., and had to submit photo or video work. The show consisted of 19 artists with 17 projects, 3 being video works, and 4 galleries of photography. As one enters the gallery, on the main floor, photographs were beautifully hung in frames with plenty of breathing room. Jeffry Cudlin, part of the Arlington Arts Center staff curated the show in direct relation with its title and outlined goal: to display a variety of photo and video work by contemporary artists. However, this is where the greatest disconnect lies. The work presented did not span a wide range. Almost all of the artists were using the camera to press a commentary upon society.
And how the camera was being used was hardly the cohesive theme running through the work. Arlington's website stresses the use of the camera for different purposes, but I felt in seeing the show, that a strong social commentary was a thematic decision in jurying the work and should have been the primary goal in display and advertisement.
Taryn Simon, the juror of IMAGE PROJECT, selected the 19 artists represented in the show. It is no coincidence that Taryn Simon's work also strongly stresses a statement on the foundation of American contemporary culture. Her work not only comes with a lengthy title, but also is presented with a paragraph of explanation of what is being displayed. Glowing blue dots on a black background is hardly an engaging and interestingly composed photo. But along with its title, Nuclear Warheads Under Water, Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Hanford Site, Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State--the piece takes on a more hefty social context. She uses the title of her series American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar to build a framework for which her work is being viewed. The viewer now understands the subjects that are being revealed. With this type of work, it is imperative that audiences be provided with a context in which to view the pieces. And similarly, with a number of works in IMAGE PROJECT, the same was necessary but unfortunately not fulfilled.
The resultant work selected by Taryn Simon, because it was all content heavy, should have changed the presentation. Although it was an open call for entries, the work that was selected was content-based, social commentary work. In allowing a viewer the appropriate context for the work to be viewed, statements and background of the artists should have played a more important role in the display.
For example, Alma Leiva's series of 4 photographs and a video piece was bridging between using photography as documentation and social commentary. Her work consisted of four photographs depicting elements of outdoor play-scapes within an interior space. The imagery alone caught my attention as being overall playful and whimsical, yet coupled with her brief statement the social commentary entered the scene. The four photographs became commentary on the reclusion of Honduran immigrants and the violence experienced both in their own country as well as Honduran gang violence in the U.S. Without the statement and background, the photographs make no sense especially along with the video clips of Honduran news broadcasts. The work is so linked to its commentary that the explanation of the work is the primary element. Yet the brief statement was easily disregarded in its placement and size. Furthermore, the photographs were hung on a different wall than the video piece increasing the confusion and cohesiveness of the project. The work was displayed as predominantly visual, where content and context were lost.
A number of the other pieces were not presented with explanations at all. Laurie Rubin, whose work consisted of color photographs of stacks of books, was simply being presented as visuals. Michael O’Sullivan, of the Washington Post, reviewed the show and speculated on the meaning of the work. Did she arrange the books in stacks with no identifiable titles to stress the disregard of written word in today's world? Is she making a point about the archaic nature of books in today's society? Such assumptions I also made when the work seemed to need an explanation or written statement to further the understanding of the piece.
Michael O’Sullivan continues, in his review, to recognize that the show is less about photography than as a display of evidence. Writing that the artist's camera was acting as a "scientific device" he classifies the aesthetic of the work as "neither especially pretty nor overwhelmingly interesting". I would have to agree with this. However, I would go one step further in saying that the work was unified not just as displaying evidence, but displaying evidence to make social commentary. And that is specifically what the work should have been presented as.
None of the artists are so well known that I entered the gallery knowing the content of the pieces. Therefore, establishing a context in which the work can be viewed, is a must. I felt that the video pieces were the most successful in presentation, focusing on content and idea. The statements were generally longer and more visible.
The video piece The Natural, by Chicago artist Nicholas O’Brien, was a clear example of this. With the video presented in the back room of the lower level, the space was ideal for screening a video piece. The flowing film showed clips of landscapes--vast mountain ranges, waterfalls, forests. It was mildly enjoyable to view. However, the brief statement was key in establishing the content of the video. As I found it, and read it, I discovered that this piece was a mix of clips from both nature documentaries and feature films. Nicholas O’Brien was investigating the audiences view on nature. Personally I could rarely distinguish between the actual footage of nature and a computer-generated image. It was the knowledge what was being seen that made the piece important and allowed the viewer to question his/her perception of nature and the influences of computer-generation. Questions of virtual realities come into play and the ability to distinguish the real from the illusion. The statement was well lit and attracted the attention of the viewer.
Another work that was arranged successfully, was Minou Nirouzi’s video piece Imago. It was displayed partitioned off from the other work. The statement was presented clearly on the wall where viewers could see it. The short film, where actors in Los Angeles stood frozen in their non-theatre-related day jobs, packed a statement of the number of American actors forced to face the tediousness of working in non-related fields. With the viewer confronted with the statement first, the context was built for the piece to give the maximum impact.
Similarly, another piece that was presented in a clean documentary style was the Library of Evenings by artists David Hartwell and Josef Jacques. The photos documenting day-to-day existence in the artist's life were placed in clipped piles on a shelf. Not the most inviting way to present a photograph, but an aesthetically pleasing arrangement was again, not the purpose of the piece. The sense of the repetitive nature of the day-to-day was clear in both arrangement and work.
Linda Hesh’s series of photographs showed facades of DC stores and investigated the sexual orientation and race associated with certain types of stores. Presented in the Arlington Arts Center, Hesh’s work was hung in a clean linear fashion. Without close examination or disregard of the small description, the comment Hesh was presenting would be completely missed. Hesh’s work was recently in another show “Bilateral Engagement” at the Art of the Americas. In that presentation, however, the work was displayed more as documentation. Coupled with a video slide show, written statements from participants and a hefty statement, the viewer is invited into a deeper understanding of the work.
It was in the type of work presented and the hanging/presenting that I felt the biggest disconnect. The presentation of IMAGE PROJECT where the show's goal was to present how contemporary artists use the camera should have chosen a wide variety of work, in which the differences would be the unifying factor of the exhibition. But in the work that Simon selected, the focus was on photography used to make social commentary, and a documentation style of presentation would have allowed the viewer to realize the work for it's potential. All artist statements should have been included and hung with as much importance as the pieces shown.