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“Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, Photographs 1956-2000”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Sept. 23

Though his most unforgiving critics might argue otherwise, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had a restless mind—one that was comfortable mulling a wide range of topics and then assembling them into a crazy quilt of ideas. So famous was Gingrich’s overactive brain that a confidant once recalled, only semijokingly, that the speaker’s office was home to a four-tier file cabinet. Three of those drawers were labeled “Newt’s Ideas.” The label on the last drawer read “Newt’s Good Ideas.”

It’s hard to imagine two men more different than Gingrich and 60-year-old photographer Arthur Tress. Tress, who has been based in both New York and California, is politically liberal, openly gay, and fascinated by unconventional religiosity. But one can detect in both men the same indefatigable drive to test the boundaries of their professions—as well as a shared frustration at spending too much time in one place. The restlessness of Tress’ mind means that he, like Gingrich, is all but fated to produce some ideas that aren’t so hot.

The retrospective of Tress’ work now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is aptly named “Fantastic Voyage.” Showcasing nearly 200 works from every period of Tress’ career, the exhibit is both expansive and diverse, progressing steadily through a dozen distinct stylistic periods. At times, the sheer range of Tress’ creativity becomes overwhelming, a sensory overload that is exacerbated by the darkness of Tress’ material: a combustible mix of freak-show sensibilities, Gothic spirituality, sinister dreamscapes, and sexual fantasies, set to the accompaniment (in the exhibit’s first room, anyway) of the spooky, minimalist soundtrack of Daymares, a surrealist film made by the artist in 1965.

It’s no surprise to discover, in the exhibition catalog, that Tress was an outsider as a youngster—”a frail, delicate, dreamy child [who] did not fit comfortably into the neighborhood.” Living in Brooklyn, Tress found solace and inspiration in the eerie, decaying kitsch of long-past-its-prime Coney Island, a locale that crops up in a number of his early photographs. Tress’ images from the late ’50s and early ’60s—mostly taken with a documentarian’s eye, and always in black and white—are bold and evocative, if not exactly groundbreaking. Aaron Siskind had been taking photographs like Tress’ 1956 Graffiti, Georgetown since the ’40s. Helen Levitt had been focusing her lens on urban youngsters like those in 1958’s Ann and Friend, Chinatown for at least as long. And Henri Cartier-Bresson—an artist greatly admired by Tress—inspired such photojournalistic images as 1961’s Girls and Capitol City Taxi, Albany, New York, which features two children playing tag in an urban wasteland.

It wasn’t until 1964, when Tress took an around-the-world tour, that the photographer’s images began to diverge from the ordinary. In Mexico, Tress took special interest in the religion of the people he met, especially the shamanic practices of Indians descended from the Maya. The exposed torso of Mummified Woman, Mexico City and the dead animals clinging to the subject of Mayan Shaman, Chiapas, Mexico illustrate Tress’ growing fascination with the grotesque and the baroque, which he began to associate with the transformative power of spirituality. Even Orthodontist’s Window, Mexico City, which features a frightening display of dentures and replacement teeth, has the grave air of a church reliquary.

In 1968, Tress offered a new take on familiar subject matter: documentary photographs of Appalachia, a project assigned to him by officials with the federal Volunteers in Service to America program. Some pieces—such as Girl With Kerosene Lamp, North Carolina—shimmer with vibrancy, but others are far moodier, darker even than the images of hardscrabble poverty made by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other Great Depression documentarians. In Young Man in Bed, Appalachia, Tress’ reclining subject communicates not only exhausted hopelessness, but also something sinister and shadowy—something almost suicidal. The image likewise demonstrates Tress’ growing sensitivity to the male form, a quality that would resurface more openly in his later work.

Not long after producing his Appalachian photographs, Tress embarked on a project for the Sierra Club’s New York gallery called Open Space in the Inner City, an effort to pinpoint human-scale urban spaces that might be turned into parks and playgrounds. Tress’ approach to this rather commonplace task is noteworthy for its attempt to blend reportage with altered consciousness. In the wall text, the photographer explains that he “used city street gazettes to randomly trace out paths that followed along isolated stretches of decrepit waterfronts or elevated highways, putting myself into a kind of trancelike state almost as a somnambulist experiencing a night walk.”

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The images grouped under the Open Space rubric—somewhat paradoxically, given Tress’ working method—mark a return to relatively straightforward social commentary. Man in Steam, New York City (1968), for example, features an agitated-looking pedestrian shrouded in steam, looking as if he has just risen from some unseen hell. And Woman in Urban Renewal Project, Albany, New York (1970), which is included in the catalog but not the show, captures a woman walking past the ghostly outline of a torn-down house.

These images are among the last of Tress’ that could pass for reportage. By this time, he was moving ever further into fictional creations, taking the next logical step down the path first trod by Robert Frank in the ’50s and then by Diane Arbus in the mid-’60s. In the Dream Collector series, Tress composed images designed to realize photographically the nightmares of young children. In Boy With Root Hands, New York (1971), a youngster is given limbs that end in gnarled roots. Boy in TV Set, Boston (1972) features a small child squeezed into an abandoned television-set cabinet. Boy in Mickey Mouse Hat, Coney Island (1968) depicts a child about to be buried in sand. The series possesses an undeniably creepy vibe, but it’s also indelibly affecting.

By 1974, Tress—influenced by his photographer friend Duane Michals—had begun to abstract his art even more. He produced a series called Shadow—a novel in photographs, a pivotal work in which Tress photographed his shadow spilling across a variety of outdoor and indoor settings. The idea sounds simple, but he executed it with aplomb. Photographed behind street grates and wrought-iron fences, his shadow becomes a prisoner; posing with a telescope or in a musty library, it becomes a seeker; shown on a bicycle or against an arrow painted on the pavement, it becomes a traveler. As visual art, this technically accomplished series is marvelous and almost a career-making work in itself. As a concept, Shadow toys gainfully with the idea of a shadow-maker—the photographer—as an actual shadow.

Yet the series also sowed an unwelcome seed—namely, a self-indulgent pretentiousness that verges on hubris. Shadow demonstrates Tress’ renewed interest in shamanism, following, as the photographer writes in his inflated wall-text introduction, “the sequence of a visionary quest from the first rigorous initiatory trials through harrowing encounters with demanding ancestor figures, to a final sighting of a transcendent connective life-force energy.”

Granted, it was the ’70s, so perhaps we should cut Tress some slack. And the idea of the shadow that Tress explores has strong literary roots, dating back at least to Plato. The problem is that in subsequent projects, Tress seemed to become increasingly enamored of his ideas rather than his art. Consider his Theater of the Mind project, which he worked on periodically throughout the ’70s. Designed as an adult companion to the Dream Collector series, the sequence goes off in so many stagy tangents that it entirely lacks the emotive power of its child-centered predecessor. A woman holding a goldfish as she kneels in a shallow pool in front of a French château? A middle-aged man dressed up in a campy Father Time costume? An actor wearing half a groom’s tuxedo on his right and half a bride’s dress on his left? Tress’ leaden, overtheatrical style consistently entombs whatever absurdity he intended to express.

Unfortunately, there were more self-indulgent impulses still to come. His Still Lifes series of 1978 to 1984—leaves and pitchforks on a bed, medical instruments in bell jars, a face embedded within a pile of leaves in a forest—is largely humorless and devoid of excitement. His Hospital Constructions series of 1984 to 1987 is similarly ponderous, despite its bright colors. The back story is promising: Tress stumbles upon an abandoned hospital used as a storage space for outdated medical equipment, so he proceeds to organize it and slather it—and the surrounding walls—with paint. The resulting assemblages of gurneys, long-armed lights, wheelchairs, and other unidentifiable medical detritus are (surprise, surprise) creepy—collections that, minus their showy paint job, would look at home in any sadist’s operating theater.

Oddly, Tress comments that the works “exorcise my own fears of sickness and death by transforming the hospital paraphernalia into a kind of wondrous children’s playland.” But this hard-to-swallow interpretation isn’t the only problem with Hospital Constructions. The series would have been more affecting had the pieces been displayed as installation art—which is what they really are—rather than as photographs. As photographic images, Tress’ unusual sculptures come across as inexplicably flat. As room-size environments, they would likely have communicated something more visceral.

A similar artistic confusion weakens 1980’s Teapot Opera and 1987 to 1990’s Fish Tank Sonata. In the former, Tress staged a puppet show with found objects on a toy proscenium arch he picked up in Stockholm. He then photographed the scenes and linked them together with captions written in verse. Fish Tank is similarly narrative, spotlighting ecological destruction through the story of a fisherman told by found objects placed within a fish tank positioned in photogenic outdoor locations. Both projects are laudable attempts at poetry and conceptual art, but they are only incidentally photography.

In itself, breaking the boundaries of one’s medium is not such a bad thing. Tress’ decision to turn his back on more traditional forms of photography is disappointing for only two reasons. One is his previous success with the art form. The other is his continued command of one photographic subject: the male body. For more than two decades, Tress has made erotic photographs of men. Like Robert Mapplethorpe’s images, Tress’ play with classical notions of beauty even as they portray carnality boldly and frankly. But unlike much of Mapplethorpe’s work—and, for that matter, most of Tress’ own—these images are often quite humorous.

In Flying Squadron, California (1996), a male nude straddles a playground airplane ride. Spinal Tap, New York (1996) shows a naked man turning away from the camera and holding a skeleton’s vertebral column and pelvis over his back. In Superman Fantasy, New York (1977), a bearded, spread-eagled model creatively cradles a cutout of the Man of Steel between his legs. What’s great about these works is that, contrary to expectations, Tress aims not just for gay male viewers—though they are certainly his primary target. Rather, his lighthearted approach manages to draw in everyone else as well. In one case, Tress succeeds at turning an unlikely selection of ingredients—a cement staircase, two young men, a skin-deep scrape, and a partially peeled-back Band-Aid—into an image that simmers with tender eroticism for viewers of all sexualities.

What these images demonstrate is that, somewhere under all the pretension of his recent work, Tress maintains universalist ambitions. Given his undeniable talent, it’s a pity that he doesn’t let them surface more often. CP