MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY
May 4 – June 30, 2007
The new work by Andreas Gursky at Chelsea’s Matthew Marks Gallery exhibits familiar themes for the accomplished German photographer. In his monumental compositions Gursky revisits vast barren landscapes, dizzying grids of technological constructs, and myriad-figured scenes reminiscent of a Where’s Waldo two page spread. The photographs are visually inescapable. With the general dimensions of 7’x 10’, razor-sharp definition and radiant colors the pieces force the viewer to take their time carefully surveying each work. In this eclectic art world we have trained ourselves to freely ignore or address certain pieces as it pleases us, and yet there’s a magnetic quality in Gursky’s photography that seems to inhibit this natural reflex. The viewing experience goes beyond simply liking or disliking the work. It is undeniably interesting. While the allure is certainly indebted to the stunning formal characteristics of each peace, it is moreover the variety of subject and theme that entices the viewer to move from one piece to the next for a lasting and fulfilling experience.
Kamiokande (2007) is a massive horizontal composition presenting the cavernous underground neutrino observatory in Japan. While the exact scientific function of the observatory is beyond my personal comprehension, Gursky presents the space with an overwhelming optical allure that renders the subject inferior. Nearly the entire piece is made up of the mesmerizing grid of thousands of shining gold orbs that make up the walls of the cavernous space. The glossy surfaces of the orbs catch the light from above and reflect it on to the placid surface of the dark water that comprises the floor of the observatory. In the bottom right-hand corner are two tiny figures is sterile lab uniforms standing in equally sterile inflatable rafts. The photograph is a brilliant exercise in reflection in both the metallic orbs and the mirror-like surface of water. What is interesting here is Gursky’s adherence to traditional landscape conventions by means of a completely untraditional subject. The ratio of land to sky and the insignificant human presence are themes present in seventeenth century Dutch painting and contemporary Ansel Adams calendars. However, Gursky has inserted an infinite expanse of gleaming artificial spheres and a strip of clinically hygienic water, illustrating the human manipulation of nature that takes place in the Kamiokande rather than the traditional theme of the omnipotence of nature over man.
To the right of Kamiokande hangs Bahrain I (2007). This aerial photograph captures a vast expanse of desert land that disappears towards a distant blue horizon. The desert landscape is streaked with a black twisting Formula 1 raceway. Here, Gursky reinterprets the landscape once again by inverting the traditional sky to land ratio. The landscape is titled up toward the picture plane leaving only the uppermost fraction of the composition for the sky. Again, the work’s monumentality combined with the photographer’s distant vantage point initially make the subject matter difficult to discern. The contrast of white sand to black pavement is immediately stimulating, and the flatness of both the desert landscape and opaque racetrack allow for virtually no gradation in tone. What results is a composition that is surprisingly painterly. The swirling forms of the track convincingly appear to be calligraphic brushstrokes of black paint on a blank canvas. It is only upon closer inspection that one can recognize the defining features of the roadway. Here again, Gursky touches on the human presence within the natural landscape in a visually compelling fashion.
Perhaps the climax of the exhibition is F1 Boxenstopp III (2007). Gursky revisits the theme of car racing in this long horizontal composition that features a scene of two Formula 1 racecars pulled in for a pit stop, each with a uniformed team frantically working to service the vehicles. The upper-third of the piece is made up by a band of windows through which spectators look fixedly upon and snap pictures of the scene directly below them. What is most striking about F1 Boxenstopp III is that it is a more intimate perspective than any of the other photographs featured in the show. While most of the figures remain anonymous, Gursky hints at a discernable narrative with the odd inclusion of a sexy blond woman placed directly at the center of the composition while a distracted member of the racing team turns to ogle, oblivious to the action behind him. This humorous detail could be easily overlooked if not for the crystalline quality of the photograph that entices the viewer to ingest every accentuated detail. Contrast is employed once again to achieve this hypnotizing effect. The uniforms of the pit teams seem to be unnaturally saturated with opulent hues of blue, yellow, red, and purple which pop against a black background that seems to absorb all other light. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be the slightest trace of dirt or grease on any of the crew which seems highly unlikely given the gritty nature of car racing.
It is no secret that Gursky manipulates his photographs in various ways to increase their visual appeal. These pieces have the uncanny ability to absorb today’s viewer in a manner similar to what one experiences when seeing a Pollock or Rothko. Yet the visceral experience of Ab-Ex is impeded by the very nature of Gursky’s medium. The quality that simultaneously advances and limits photography when compared to the other visual arts is the inherent function of reproducing reality. Although reality may be slightly tweaked by Gursky, it is almost always enhanced. It is the detailed reproduction of recognizable forms combined with the monumentality of the image and the calculated amplification of visual elements which places the work outside the esoteric confines of Abstract Expressionism. This show allows for a spellbinding visual ride without the pretensions of being “in the know.”
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Chris Maceira is a graduate art history student at the Pratt Institute. He received his B.A. in art history from Vassar College where he wrote his thesis on the masochistic performances of Chris Burden and the recurrance of similar acts in contemporary pop culture.