1.9 / Review

The Future Lasts Forever

By Dena Beard February 24, 2010

The photographs in SF Camerawork’s second installment of “An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area” range widely in persuasiveness, subtly critiquing photography’s critical efficacy. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that curator Chuck Mobley has titled part two of the anniversary show “The Future Lasts Forever,” a reference to Louis Althusser’s uxorcidal memoir. Indicting himself philosophically and morally for his wife's murder, L'Avenir dure longtemps marked a shift in Marxist critique toward self-reflexivity as a necessary component of critical engagement. During his last years, Michel Foucault, a student of Althusser, attempted to rectify his mentor’s ethical hypocrisy by linking the process of self-transformation to the aestheticism of critique. In a final interview, he asked, “Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?” SF Camerawork’s 35th anniversary exhibition evokes this same urgency in the medium of photography, placing simply representative photographs alongside more challenging projects.

With Michael Light’s "100 Suns" (2003), Mobley layers political critique within the immediate parameters of the show. "100 Suns" is the study of an empire’s self-destruction: archival pictures of soldiers proudly watching the harnessing of the atom, even as radioactive waste dusts them. Seizing the photograph’s seductive materiality, Light measures our capacity to witness barbarism. At the other end of this critical spectrum, Louis Hock’s grainy nightscope images of figures crossing the U.S.-Mexican border are abstracted to the point of caricature. Devoid of the types of ethical provocations that Light achieves through involved research, Hock’s appropriation remains as coldly abstract as the military originally intended. Whereas Hock takes empirical evidence too literally, Light renegotiates it, making the images contemporary to our collective obsession with “shock and awe.”

Michael Light. "Truckee Kilotons Christmas Island 1962," 2003; from "100 Suns;" pigment print mounted on aluminum. Courtesy of SF Camerawork.

Anne Collier. "John Baldessari," 2002‑2004; from "Untitled (Aura Photographs);" Polaroid photo. Courtesy of SF Camerawork.

Speaking directly to the Bay Area art community, Kevin Killian’s snapshots of local savants are arranged so that the initials of each name spell out a line from a Jack Spicer poem: “Take a step back and view the sentence.”[1] Surprisingly, doing so makes the San Francisco art scene more relevant than ever. The characters in Killian’s photographs gauge the breadth of his explorations, as well as the area’s critical impact. Comparatively, Anne Collier’s "Untitled (Aura Photographs)" (2002‑2004) are inaccessible—the floating, color-marinated heads of John Baldessari, Tomma Abts, Frances Stark, and other artists are too impersonal to be distinctive.

The grouping of Todd Hido and Paul Schiek—representing TBW books—with Robert Mapplethorpe creates another striking confrontation. Hido and Schiek dispassionately mine their pre-approved lifestyle, snapping pictures of the suburbs, nude girls, and middle-class guilt, while Robert Mapplethorpe’s subversive erotics of S&M culture are visceral—you can almost see his internal transformation from deviant to sexual superhero. Killian and Mapplethorpe participate fervently in their portraits, rejecting the predatory, conscience-deadening temptations of the photographic medium.

In “The Future Lasts Forever,” San Francisco is represented by its technological prowess and commitment to full disclosure as both daguerreotype and digital image; the exhibition is as much a portrait of the medium as of itself. Althusser’s autobiography damned him as the destabilized object of his own theories, and, similarly, Mobley makes it palpable that the Bay Area often falls prey to its own frontier enthusiasm. Here he reminds us that the ethical photograph is a self-reflexive document, an extension of critical engagement that leaves both viewer and photographer forever changed.

 

“An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area Part 2: The Future Lasts Forever” is on view at SF Camerawork in San Francisco through April 17, 2010.

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NOTES:
[1] Robin Blaser, ed., Collected Books of Jack Spicer. (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975). 227.

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