Silvio Wolf’s work has not appeared solo in New York since 2008, and it has returned, to the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, in a new and surprising form – the human figure. His previous photographs had worked the border between representation and nondisclosure. The images bore visual references, but it was impossible in most cases to tell where they pointed, perhaps toward some horizon or threshold of apprehension, two words favored in the titles of those earlier series. They suggested that within the camera’s view, the real has many guises, and the act of deciphering inevitably becomes an act of self-scrutiny. Interpretation is dictated less by what is shown than by associations in the viewer’s mind. The approach echoed Minor White’s, minus the sententious mysticism, and acknowledged an essential dynamic of photograph and audience — that the motivation to look arises from a desire to know, a desire that no external object, no image can fully satisfy.
By referring directly to the human figure in the current exhibition (on view through February 16), Wolf makes literal what had been implicit: the primacy of the viewer, the “us” of the show’s title. The gallery rooms, dramatically organized, conduct viewers on an itinerary of self-recognition, from an introductory work that is part image and part mirror – a kind of aperture – through a central gallery of shadowy blue silhouettes (of gallery goers in Chelsea), to a final room containing three backlit deep black photographs with mirrored surfaces, variants of the so-called Claude glass, or dark mirror, which obscures and reveals its viewer simultaneously. These works are accompanied by the delicate sound of young voices reciting people’s names. In this environment visitors contemplate the image of themselves as the subject of the work, illuminated by light that seems to leak from the pieces themselves. The sound installation emphasizes viewers’ involvement with others (and with their own memories).
Since the Dadaists of the 1920s, many artists have confronted viewers with the reflected image of themselves, most recently Douglas Gordon and Gerhard Richter. Viewers have been implicated as voyeurs, celebrity mongers and phantoms before the object. Never has this confrontation served as the destination of a journey, one that leads to an act of awareness beyond the narcissism of self. In Wolf’s exhibition, meaning resides with the seer and not within the thing seen, and the seer is not an isolated individual but all of “us” who pass through the gallery.