IdyllSeptember 20, 2011
The new group photography exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery aims to turn the definition of an idyll on its head. On the surface, each work in the exhibition presents an idealized and bucolic view of the relationships between humans and landscapes, especially of rustic life. With further scrutiny, however, there is a sinister undercurrent in which the fallacy of this utopian vision becomes apparent.
The exhibition takes as its starting point Larry Sultan’s Homeland series (2006-2009), which captures day laborers on the fringes of a suburban American paradise. Many of the other photographers show the influence of traditional conventions of landscape painting, yet each artist complicates these conventions in their own way. Alec Soth’s The Farm, Angola State Prison, Louisiana (2002) resembles a humble seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting, with a low, flat horizon dotted with figures. As the title suggests, however, this is not an image of agrarian independence, but a prison work detail. Jim Goldberg’s The Orchard (2007) recalls Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-1863) as populated by aimless youths. Taking such conventions to the present, Sultan’s Backyard Film Set (2002) and Catherine Wagner’s images of Tokyo Disneyland reveal the artificial construction of modern landscapes.
Stylistically, these works find themselves somewhere between the New Topographics aesthetic of the 1970s and more theatrical contemporary photography as epitomized by Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. The photographs in Idyll are not dispassionate visions of man-made landscapes, but they do capture the underside of the American Dream as reflected in complex relationships with environments. See,
for example, Goldberg’s Home, Hyderabad (2008), which finds an echo of this dream in India by portraying a dilapidated drainage culvert, presumably home to the family pictured. Melanie Pullen’s Zanotti’s Sunflare (Barrel Series) (2003) seems to portray a pristine winter scene, until one notices the pair of feet sticking out of a barrel. Though the photographs are not elaborately staged spectacles, some contain a sense of fabrication and there’s a mysterious narrative to many of them.
With a few exceptions, notably Doug Rickard’s #33.408196, Louise, MS. 2008 (2011), all of the works share a striking stylistic similarity; the clear, dusky light appears to depict the same time of day in each photograph. While this lends the exhibition a necessary coherence, it left me wanting a more varied and nuanced perspective.