1.19 / Review

They Knew What They Wanted

By Lea Feinstein July 12, 2010

NOTE: “They Knew What They Wanted” is a group exhibition across four galleries, with four different curators. This review covers the shows at Fraenkel Gallery and Ratio 3. Christine Wong Yap’s companion review covers the shows at John Berggruen Gallery and Altman Siegel Gallery.

For a lively summer show, Shannon Ebner, Katy Grannan, Robert Bechtle, and Jordan Kantor mined the storerooms and flat files of four San Francisco galleries (Altman Siegel, Fraenkel, John Berggruen, and Ratio 3) to create a distributed exhibition with a catchy title and a snazzy, hard-to-resist invitation: “They Knew What They Wanted.” In all four venues, photographs and photo-inspired works predominate. Older, vintage, and anonymous pieces join contemporary works in juxtapositions that startle and inspire—freshening everything on display.

At Fraenkel Gallery, Katy Grannan’s selection cues us to her own varied artistic predilections. Known for her sensitive, voyeuristic portraits of people on the margins of identity, she continues that exploration with “William Hawkins” (1877) (photographer unknown) and a double portrait of murderers by Richard Avedon. A handwritten entry accompanying the Hawkins photo states that he was struck by lightning and incarcerated after making threats to his wife and others. We read his face, the gesture of his hand, looking for outward signs of an inward disturbance. Avedon’s “Dick Hickock, murderer, and Perry Smith, murderer, Garden City, Kansas, April 15, 1960” (1960) is flagrant in its specificity—the names of the sitters, the date of the photograph, the skewed eyes, and the tiger tattoos. Again we parse the faces, arms, and tattoos, trying to detect homicidal tendencies. Grannan’s “Anonymous, Los Angeles” (2008) portrays a transsexual subject with bleached hair, earrings, and shaved belly, harshly depicted in bright daylight. S/he gently strokes a baby rabbit cradled at the breast in a tender gesture that underlines their mutual fragility and vulnerability.

Lee Friedlander’s “N.Y.C.” (2006) takes us behind the scenes at a couture fashion show. His cinematic and claustrophobic close-ups capture a frenetic pace as hands tease, coif, powder, dress, and disembody the passive, vacant-eyed “mannequins.” As voyeurs, we witness the violence of the transformations. Nearby, Grannan pairs E.J. Bellocq’s “Storyville Portrait” (1912) with Untitled Standing Figure (1957) by Manuel Neri. The vintage photo of a New Orleans prostitute with her face crudely obliterated by black marker seems illicit, as indeed it was a turn-of-the-century porn shot. The headlessness of the Neri sculpture seems suddenly noteworthy and “decapitated”; the figure is a sex object and no longer a mere “nude.”

In a rear gallery, a collage of animal-themed images juxtaposes Charley Harper’s 1960s quail, deer, and turtle designs with Peter Hujar’s portrait of a boy and his cow. Garry Winogrand’s image of a kneeling steer about to be struck on a highway sits alongside Will Rogan’s 2006 image of delicate bird footprints embedded in cement. The momentary and elusive are arrested and captured forever.

Jordan Kantor’s selection at Ratio 3 is an offbeat mix of jokes, puzzles, and eclectic inquiries into the nature of vision. He is attracted to the insignificant and the grandiose. Small black-

Installation, Fraenkel Gallery. Lee Friedlander's "N.Y.C. 2006" series on left, and Manuel Neri's Untitled Standing Figure (1957) at right. Courtesy of the Artists and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Miriam Böhm. "Archive V," 2008; chromogenic color print, 20 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

and-white images by unknown photographers feature a smudgy finger on a lens and a young Eartha Kitt lookalike mimicking the bent frame of a ’60s butterfly chair. In a photo collage advertising a vaudeville song-and-dance man, the actor struts and splits in multiple poses, performing impossible stunts, eager to please.

In Kantor’s own work, the camera is a tool for image gathering, not an end in itself. His found images are translated into paintings. Neither the photo nor the painting is foremost, but the idea behind the subject, the history of the moment portrayed, is paramount. “Parcae Constellation in Draco (Naval Ocean Surveillance System/USA 160)” (2008), Trevor Paglen’s telescopic photo of spy satellite tracks in the distant night sky, fits neatly into this category. The image itself is unspectacular, like a diagram in a science book. As with much of Paglen’s work, only when we know what it depicts does it rivet our attention. Science and investigative reporting are framed as art, and the lengthy title is critical to how we view the image. Eadweard Muybridge’s “Adjutant, Flying Run” (1887), a stop-motion study of a young pelican beginning its flight, also straddles the divide between art and science. His photographic observations of animal motion with their distinctive grid format are endlessly fascinating, and were long ago appropriated by practitioners of contemporary art. The viewer’s eye zooms in, detecting the details of each frame, then zooms out to record the whole design.

History is reconstructed and fabricated in Lutz Bacher’s The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview (1976). In nine framed photostatic copies printed as negatives and displayed as a horizontal frieze, the artist performs a looping, invented, self-interrogation. She is simultaneously a brazen journalist (the interviewer) and Oswald’s surrogate (the interviewee). She mixes degraded newspaper photos and ragged typescript to create the disjunctive visual equivalent of a dialogue in a Samuel Beckett play, questioning the nature of reality. A photographic salad, the form of her work embodies the twisted “history” of the events leading up to the John F. Kennedy assassination and Oswald’s pivotal role in the still-unsolved mystery.

The show also features minimalist works in several media. Shannon Ebner’s “Los Angeles Series” (2009) and Miriam Böhm’s “Archive V(2008) are cerebral conceptual photographs about photographic vision and the monocular eye, the illusion of three-dimensional space subverted by the reality of a flat surface. Vija Celmins’ mezzotint engraving Untitled (web 3) (2002) and Alighiero Boetti’s Centri di Pensiero (1978) are the slow motion antitheses of the photographic process. Centri di Pensiero is a ballpoint pen rendering of an elliptical two-page “text” in which the alphabet crowds the left margin (y-axis), and commas are scattered like constellations on a summer night (x-axis). Celmins’ image of a spider’s web was meticulously crafted by rocking a small multi-pointed tool back and forth across a metal plate. The density and intensity of these works are achieved by arduous and repetitive mark-making, bordering on obsession.

The Ratio 3 show doesn’t wallow in the sensuous physical world but spins and delineates ideas. Largely monochromatic and heavily conceptual, it appeals to and stimulates the mind, not the heart, of a viewer. In contrast, many works in the Fraenkel show elicit sharp emotional responses. A wall of snapshots by anonymous photographers emphasizes the role that “taking pictures” has assumed in modern life, recording the momentous and the carefully composed, as well as the fleeting and the ordinary.


“They Knew What They Wanted” is on view at Altman Siegel Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, John Berggruen Gallery, and Ratio 3 through July 31, 2010.

Comments ShowHide