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March – April 2020 Feature

Many of us have been waiting for a major exhibition of the work of An-My Lê. Now, two have arrived, one following on the heels of the other, albeit on different continents. Beginning March 14, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh is presenting On Contested Terrain, the artist’s first major survey show, with nearly 125 images. Silent General, which closed February 29 at the London branch of the Marian Goodman Gallery, took its title from Lê’s hugely ambitious recent project (2015- ), but also included some older images. The straddling of places and times seems fitting. Lê’s work always seems to involve spatial and temporal slippages. The now contains then; the here contains multiple elsewheres.   Picking through my archive (it’s not that romantic…

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January – February 2020 Feature

One of the most nuanced photographs in the 2014 Whitney Biennial was Dawoud Bey’s portrait of Barack Obama, made in Chicago in 2007, two years before the future president was sworn in to his first term. It was direct and consistent with classical representations of powerful people – a straightforward, seated portrait, the subject staring confidently into the lens. But it also felt different. There was a layer of vulnerability, or perhaps just honesty, about Obama’s pre-presidential pose; the way his hands folded softly across his lap; the way his jacket, worn without a tie, casually signaled his grace and humility; how the shallow depth of field throwing everything into a meditative blur might, two terms later, sit in tack-sharp contrast to the elongated red…

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November/December 2019 Feature

In late September, I interviewed the cantankerous photographer Duane Michals, now 87, who is known for composing photographic dramas that often include his handwritten text. Over the phone we talked about many people and things, about Robert Frank (whom he loves) and Allen Ginsberg (loathes), Giorgio de Chirico (loves), John Szarkowski (loathes), authenticity (loves), religion (loathes), Saul Steinberg (loves) the art world (loathes), Balthus (loves).  The occasion for our conversation was Illusions of the Photographer: Duane Michals at the Morgan Library & Museum, Michals’s first New York retrospective, on view through February 2, 2020. (The Duane Michals Show was at the International Center for Photography in 1992, though it had been organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.) A smaller show of…

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September – October 2019 Feature

Blood is the first thing I see when I approach Elle Pérez’s photographs at the Whitney Biennial on a Wednesday morning at 11 am. In Pérez’s photograph Dahlia and David (fag with a scar that says dyke), 2019, crimson liquid pools in the shape of the letters D-Y-K-E, etched into the skin by a silver blade. Calling to mind Catherine Opie’s cutting self-portraits from the mid-1990s, Dahlia and David is an act of startling intimacy, and I am struck by the possibility of having something so important to say to the world that you will allow blood to be drawn to do it. Dahlia and David is one of nine images by Pérez, who uses the pronouns they/them, on view in the Biennial (through September…

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July – August 2019 Feature

As the divisions between mediums increasingly blur, and museums move towards less hierarchical department models, artists’ allegiance to one way of making art is becoming similarly elastic. Three notable shows in Northern California this summer provide examples of how sculpture, and the idea of sculpture, are explored in photo-based work: Erin Shirreff, Sara VanDerBeek, and Catherine Wagner each make photo-based art and objects that are deeply informed by sculptural concerns. All three artists create images and objects that explore art history, art, and its circulation and reception.  Considering printed images of objects, particularly big steel objects, is a key starting point for Shirreff. In 2005 she earned an MFA in sculpture from Yale, a department that allowed her to explore the conceptual and physical dimensions…

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May – June 2019 Feature

Emile, Man of the Future, 2016-17, barely even looks like a man. The large photograph, installed in Lucas Blalock’s first solo museum show, at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in downtown Los Angeles through July 21, is more like a vaguely figurative set of incisions balancing on a collapsed chair. The image faces you as soon as you enter Blalock’s show, titled An Enormous Oar after a phrase in Constance De Jong’s genre-blurring 1975 novel Modern Love. It hangs beside Switchboard, 2015-16, a photograph of metal mailboxes with black swirls, loosely resembling the cords of an old-fashioned switchboard, floating on the surface. “I think the show really started for me with the relationship between these two pictures,” says Blalock, who lives and works in…

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March – April 2019 Feature

  At this point in her career, the barriers faced by South African photographer Zanele Muholi – barriers preventing her from speaking her truth and taking control of her own image – would seem to have been dispatched, conquered by the force of her powerful photographs and stunning, theatrical self-portraits. Her work has been widely published and exhibited, and now, selections from her latest series, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, are on view at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) through March 30 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) through March 31, as part of the multi-venue exhibition Zanele Muholi and the Women’s Mobile Museum. The self-portraits, in which she gazes directly into the lens, turning unorthodox materials – rubber…

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January – February 2019 Feature

In the waning days of April 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers pushed toward Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the then-divided nation’s largest city, determined to expel American forces. Recognizing, finally, that the American presence in Vietnam was dangerously untenable, U.S. Marines executed a harried mission to evacuate American civilians and endangered South Vietnamese citizens by helicopter. When North Vietnamese forces seized Saigon, the war officially ended, yet it ushered two societies into a dark night of the soul that may never be fully resolved.  In his multidisciplinary practice, Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê addresses memory, displacement, and trauma – but also offers glimpses of hope – in works that frame individual and collective experiences of what the Vietnamese call “the American War.” Lê’s family fled their…

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November/December 2018 Feature

In Deana Lawson’s 2017 photograph Nikki’s Kitchen, a woman kneels on an old wooden chair, hand under chin, staring at the camera with some defiance. She wears a leopard print jersey jumpsuit that falls off her shoulder and seductively contrasts with the Victorian wallpaper that only partially covers the walls behind her. Lawson made the photo with the help of her longtime best friend, Dana Brown, and in an interview published in Lawson’s new Aperture monograph, video artist Arthur Jafa – also a friend – asks about working with Brown. “How essential is that to your methodology and what you get?” Lawson answers by talking about Nikki and the leopard jumpsuit. She and Brown arrived at Nikki’s house, and Nikki refused to wear the suit…

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