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Artist Seeking Meaning; No Weirdos

Tim Davis

I once thought about placing a personal ad. This was before the internet, and one awful Thursday (why are they so rotten?) I forced myself to walk down to the over-cheery offices of a dating service in lower Manhattan. On one of the ten-odd pages of profile forms you were asked to pencil in a box indicating whether you required the potential date to "include a picture." For a brief second, I imagined with pleasure that the agency would have women sending me pictures that they had taken, rather than pictures of themselves. I realized how much more I could learn about these Misses Lonelyhearts and Congenialities and (likely not) Universes by the image they had made than by any tainted typical headshot. I would see how this person saw the world; what, amid the immeasurable scenarios and still lives and instances of light on substance they felt most described them—what mattered. I went so far as to ask whether this might be possible, and, given a perfunctory bureaucratic apology, dropped my application in the shred pile.

I still look at photographs this way, as testimony in the trial of Artist vs. Indifference, as the thing someone is saying to get us to care. Sifting through the not-yet-yellowed affidavits of the Yale MFA Dating Service of 2010, I find myself practicing tying the bowtie, buying Binaca, asking around after quiet trattorias and whether there are any revival movie theaters still in this town. Here's what I find attractive in these nine profiles.

First, a lack of essential anxiety. Since the Jurassic period of high postmodernism the terrible lizards of photographic theory have been in convulsions over some great crisis of photographic representation. Endless essays trumpet photography's failure to speak truth and the essential fallacy of the assumption that photography is in some way tethered to anything real. Shannon Ebner, a Yale MFA grad whose work I have admired since at least 1990, recently wrote "Images point to what is in the world; that is the problem with representation." To me that is like saying "Meals are nourishing and tasty; that is the problem with food." Taken as a whole, the work of these nine artists declares the crisis over and insists: Let's get on with having something to say. Standing side by side, without anxiety, are nine bodies of work made in modes that critics would love to pit against each other, but can't.

In Monika Sziladi's long skinny pictures of professional and vernacular fashionistas we have photographs that read squarely in tradition of post-journalistic street work. They are balletic hand camera renderings of social events that could almost be outtakes from Lartigue's panoramas from the 1920s. The fact that they are digitally composited and sometimes somewhat staged says no more about the meaning of the pictures than the fact that Robert Flaherty directed some of the events in Man of Aran, or that Melville wrote Moby Dick in Pittsfield, ten years and 173 miles (thanks google maps!) from The Spouter's Inn.

And sitting waiting at the next diner booth we find Lucas Foglia's "Re-Wilding." These are pictures with a familiar documentary purpose. Lucas is an earnest clean-cut young man eager to show us the range of behaviors of those Americans so skeptical of progress, they've decided to roll it back and live close to the land. Only he found the best way to describe these behaviors was to enact pictures with the canny "naturalism" of the Barbizon school. So while he approaches his off-the-grid-niks with the progressive zeal of Lewis Hine, he has found himself making Millets.

I find these photographers in possession of a very current form of openmindedness. The ipod age never lets us forget the value of the single, and has unknit completely the way we expect works of art to stick to each other. Kate Greene's velvety, layered nature studies refuse to admit that a photographic body of work must be governed by the orthodoxy of a single kind of light source. She flashes the natural world with strobes, watches as moonlight rips holes in the sky, and removes natural objects into the laboratory of the studio, all while working only the service of the needs of any one image. In the end her work has the qualities of the best science fiction: forcing us to consider the essential strangeness of our basic biological beings.

In Dave Bush's family drama, staged domestic scenes, long-lensed renderings of enraptured motorists, digitally knitted backyard scrums, and unaffected portraiture slide together seamlessly, all in the service of a central idea: that private space is the new agora. Since Baudelaire (maybe since Socrates?) artists have looked to the urban to describe the progressive, the new, the motile, the vivid. Bush's project wants to reroute that energy to the domestic suburbs. If you go stand on Manhattan's streets (the capital of 20th century urban awareness) watching the tourists file into the same Abercrombie and Fitches they have in their own malls it will help him make his case. The strangeness, alienation and sudden rapture, as well as the clashing of irrational, seemingly unconnected forms we've always expected from Fifth Avenue does seem present here along a quiet county route.

I find myself charged up to talk politics with some of these applicants. Tatiana Grigorenko, both a former ballerina and photojournalist, employs both skill sets in her varied projects. She is always politically "on point" and in the hunt for the cultural meaning of photographic images. She has staged an exposé of the trade in Russian mail-order brides, erased herself from her own childhood photographs, and reinterpreted the news coverage of the actual gunshot wound she received hours after arriving in New Haven. There is no image in Grigorenko's world that she is not asking for its papers and part affiliation.

Tiffani Hooper has made a picture of the sacred act of sexual congress, taken from the P.O.V. of a reclining white male, looking past his surging black partner at an N.F.L game in flagrante first down. Sex and politics are inextricable in Hooper's frank enactments. They read like flares sent up, warning us to consider the underseen sexual and social position of the black woman in the workplace, the bedroom, the relationship, the world.

Before filming a love scene with a starlet, George C. Scott is said to have forewarned, "I apologize if I get an erection, and I apologize if I don't." I feel the same glamorous ambivalence toward the sex in these portfolios. You'd have to be a Republican not to fall for the dazzling array of sentiments toward our sexual selves. Hrvoje Slovenc takes us into the subbasement of desire, making dazzling crisp tableaux of homemade sexual dungeons. Every one of us has experienced how quickly the world can become sexually charged (I once read the average teenage boy thinks about sex every seventeen seconds), but it is remarkable to see it happen in an architectural space.

For Rory Mulligan, sex is, above all, a photographic act. There is a visual hunger in all his work that aims to remind us the sexiest orifice might be the camera's aperture. So whether he is photographing naked men falling onto beds looking like post-coital putti, or finding splayed objects on the street, he is always forcing us to feel the visual friction of the world entering a lens.

This unrelenting return to the delicacy of the photographic act runs all through Curran Hatleburg's pictures. As an old-fashioned rambler, led through the world by the camera around his neck, Hatleburg might not make the most reliable date. But his passion for the amount of redemption the camera's presence can bring to America's median strips and rental row houses, its barely-employed and ketchup-nourished, can only be described as gorgeous.

There is a lack of cynicism in these pages that seems remarkable in any group of individuals surviving an advanced degree. That might be the most appealing thing about this group of suitors: their faith. They each to a one believe strongly in the power of the photographic image. This doesn't make them naïve. It just describes them as young artists able to be renewed by the cockeyed throb of visual meaning. They reject Marcel Duchamp's dualistic declaration that "I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products" and instead sidle up to both at the bar, asking, "come here often?"

Tim Davis
Tivoli, NY
February, 2010