CONSTRUCTING REALITIES: PHOTOGRAPHY, FILM, VIDEO, INTERNET: PACE WILDENSTEIN GALLERY * NEW YORK CITY

The question of authenticity has created a point of contention for photography since the definition of reality became open to debate. The tantalizing group show, “Constructing Realities: Photography, Film, Video and Internet,” at Pace Wildenstein, seeks to investigate the way in which 20th century photography and the moving image have impacted the experience of reality. In order to convey how the idea of the real has been articulated through the use of modern, technological means, the exhibition follows the work of Diane Arbus, Stan Douglas, Gary Hill, Mike Kelley, Andy Warhol and Robert Whitman. Surprisingly, only half of it seems to work

This show opens with a series of nineteen photographs Arbus took during the 1960s and 1970s which are currently on view in the traveling exhibition, “Diane Arbus: Revelations.” Arbus pioneered a new style of portraiture in the late 1950s when she began taking pictures of people attending sideshows, restaurants, and movie theaters. Strongly influenced by fairy tales and myth, Arbus was drawn to hermaphrodites, midgets, prostitutes and giants. “Girl with a cigar in Washington Square Park,” and “Two Female Impersonators,” for example, lacks the kind of symmetry and posing that convey Western beauty for the camera. As a result these ordinary subjects were considered off-beat. As Diane Arbus wrote: “Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw…Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.” By isolating her subjects, Arbus lent a voice to individuals who would otherwise have gone unheard. The high degree of conformity that permeated mid-century American society, moreover, censored alternative visions of daily experience. Arbus successfully captured the gaze of her subjects. The sense of eye contact she creates leads a viewer to a profound understanding of those who lived beyond mainstream society.

Gary Hill’s video installation titled, “Standing Apart/Facing Faces,” exploits the gaze. The film features an American Indian, wearing blue jeans and a shirt, who suddenly turns his head and stares out blankly at the viewer. While this is not a who-blinks-first challenge, an unspoken history emerges eerily while viewer and subject stand in a locked stare. Andy Warhol’s hilarious caricature, “Paul Swan,” (1965) uses the camera to focus on an actor who was once dubbed “the most beautiful man in the world.” Born in 1883, Paul Swan was a Shakespearean actor who also worked in two silent movies. Warhol’s film was created in 1965 and exposes a frumpy old man who stumbles nervously around a small set, calling into question the abilities of an actor whom everyone had once lent their high praises.

In stark contrast, the artistic methodology of Mike Kelley’s “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene)” (2000) is made nearly invisible by bad acting and starkly overlaid eccentricities. Although Kelley attempted to feature a gay couple arguing like the characters on I Love Lucy, his efforts to direct serious attention toward issues surrounding sexual identity fall flat. The screenplay is exaggerated. Stan Douglas’ 9-minute film titled “Der Sandmann,” (1995) is equally problematic. It combines an 18th century horror narrative by ETA Hoffman with a black-and-white film that juxtaposes developing landscapes with settled ones. An old man—the sandman—appears throughout, shoveling dirt, but the relationship of this character to the progress of suburban development does not adhere; the artist fails to extrapolate his idea from Hoffman’s masterpiece.

Robert Whitman’s “Local Report” (2005) incorporates blurry footage captured by new technology, such as camera phones and web casts, to exploit nightly field reporting seen frequently on local news stations. Dislocated audio plays overhead in an attempt to add context to what is seen, but the visuals are unclear and thus unreliable, and reduce the effect of the altered reality that Whitman sought to create.

 

Fictitious subject matter weighs down half the exhibition; the other half makes a strong case for the development of experienced reality. Although this show attempts to use photographic-based media as an index for the evolution of reality, it also risks playing into the hands of those who seek censorship for just that.