Out of Focus: Photography
Brian Dillon for Modern Painters
Out Of Focus- really? No smart individual at Saatchi thought better of that? After some incredulity, one had to assume that the title of the gallery’s first major photography exhibition in almost a decade was truly meant in the manner it seemed. That is to say, it was a clunkily punning admission that among the 38 artists on show, no consensus would emerge about the present state of photography, still less where it might be headed. So far, so conventional: Fealty to the medium has been beside the point for some time, at best one option among others for artists who „work with photography“ (a pretty limp phrase in its own right). Except that somebody at Saatchi also wanted this to be a show „about“ photographs today in the wider culture- there was some press-pack throat-clearing about social media, Flickr, and so on. All told, and in light of the vast ranges of quality therein, „Out of Focus“ starts to read- avoidably, you’d think- like a description of the exhibition itself and its ambitions.
Of course, the immediately vexing curatorial problem was how to make a decade’s acquisitions look like something more than a shopping list, especially given that neither Charles Saatchi nor his gallery has evinced much interest or expertise in the subject over the years. The extent of the confusion this challenge had wrought was perhaps best expressed by William A. Ewing’s catalogue essay, by turns excitable and flat-footed. Ewing works hard to convince that certain uppercase themes dominate the show- Body, Face, Landscape, Mind, Bonds. There is, I suspect, a reason these topics get bigger, vaguer, and less convincing as the list progresses: Ewing is strenuously avoiding the question of whether a guiding sensibility or taste is at work here. The answer is that it certainly seemed to be, though it was hard to know which was more dispiriting: the often glib choice of works, or the less than robust efforts at making them cohere or even registering the interest of their disparity.
Things were initially encouraging, if somewhat grandiosely presented. Katy Grannan’s „Boulevard“ series of 2010-11 is compromised of large-scale portraits- 20 of them lined the first room in the show- of anonymous individuals who responded to the artist’s advertisement for subjects in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Ewing makes something, needlessly I think, of the putative paradox of an anonymous portrait.) Under the merciless West Coast sunlight, these figures strike variously aggrandising and fragile attitudes against a series of minimally distinguishable white walls. There’s a tremendously hirsute man, some mottled or blurry older women with the air of forgotten reclusive movie stars, a handful of transvestites and other of indeterminate ambitions, gender-wise. The light democratises- flesh sags, cheeks hollow into harsh shadows- but each self-invented character is rendered with discrete and monumental precision.
Grannan’s photographs are at once moving, formally impressive, and, in this context, somehow not to be trusted. The suspicion is that they are in the Saatchi show for quite shallow reasons, an easy amalgam of scale and prurience. It’s not that there is much, or anything, very shocking in „Out of Focus“- more a sense that the informing way of seeing is apt to halt at the level of prompt recognition. Having done the roomful of big grisly portraits, it must be time for the roomful of big eerie landscapes. And here they are seven of them, courtesy of David Benjamin Sherry: mountainous views saturated in color casts of different hues: blood red, acid yellow, sugary violet. Sherry’s romanticism feels both knowing and naive: alive enough to everyone from Ansel Adams to Robert Smithson, but oddly one-dimensional in its use of these chromatic veils to estrange such imagery. Still, like Grannan’s works, they have a monumental presence, and this room felt a deal more coherent than the next, in which Mitch Epstein’s perspectives of U.S. oil refineries and Matthew Day Jackson’s wry photographs of clumps of rock and cliff with accidental anthropomorphic profiles were almost drained of visual energy and conceptual intrigue by Luis Gispert’s manipulated landscapes glimpsed from inside glitzily tricked-out truck cabs. So much for Landscape, with something of Faces and Bodies, which returned in a selection of Ryan McGinley’s nudes, at large in nature and caves.
Though it was not bruited much in the exhibition’s attendant texts, a good deal of „Out of Focus“ turned out to be concerned with photographic collage- a genre in which, whatever their provenance or import, things tend to be in focus. There was a room devoted to John Stezaker: 31 works, among them his customary cuts and splices between vintage actors‘ portraits, and eight from the „Old Masks“ series, in which arches and bridges obscure and complete photographic portraits of old men. So skilful and achieved, and still resonant in Stezaker’s work that here is threatened to shame less thoughtful but more expansive artists. Mariah Robertson’s fractured diversions of Man Ray and El Lissitzky are possessed of humour and energy- one print ravelled itself along floor, wall, and ceiling and would have been 100 feet long if fully unrolled- that saves them from the impression given by a lot of the work in the show that it simply didn’t deserve such scale. (Mat Collishaw’s 10-to-16-foot-tall pixel mosaics from media images were an especially inflated and vacuous case in point.) Time and again, certain conjunctions did the strongest work no favours and exposed the weaker work to comparisons that have to be blamed on the context, both restrictive and vague: photography supposedly tout court.
None of this is to say that „Out Of Focus,“ however thinly conceived, was without its straightforwardly impressive discoveries. David Noonan’s screen-printed repurposing of black-and-white images of ritual and theatrical or musical performances hardly qualify as photography per se, but in their odd and ecstatic invocation of certain countercultural motifs of half a century ago, they felt among the most current works on view, and perhaps too a surprising acquisition for Saatchi. And for some years Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have been producing work that, having emerged from a more conventional (though very smartly realised) photographic practice, now risks sometimes astonishing historical and conceptual ruses. Another heartening surprise here was the appearance of eight nudes (exhibited in negative) from the series „ALIAS: Dora Fobert,“ 2011, for which they invented a fictional photographer from the Polish ghetto of World War II and made work in her name. The photographs were shown at Saatchi alongside untitled circular images from the artists‘ research into a photographic archive of the Troubles in Belfast: Those pictures are blown up from portions of monochrome prints covered by small red stickers in the archive. It’s a minimal and canny interventions that, in the context of „Out Of Focus,“ seemed a rigorous act of concentrated looking rather than east spectacle.