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“The Naked and the Tame—Dissolving the Line Between Painting and Photography”

“Raft of the Refugee”

Documentation, surveillance, and pornography were among the earliest uses of photography. And in spite of the profound destabilization of reality that the medium has subsequently accomplished, these functions (with their particular kinds of truth claims) continue to characterize photography’s productions—albeit often in oblique or indirect ways. Furthermore, although photographic processes and techniques have grown extraordinarily complicated and the constructed artifice of the images more and more obvious, the assertion that a photo presents a superior representation of experience has managed to thrive.

These observations come to mind on the occasion of two shows (only one of which purports to concern the nature of photography) that demonstrate some of the intricacies of both artistic and journalistic deployments of the medium. “The Naked and the Tame—Dissolving the Line Between Painting and Photography” at the McLean Project for the Arts’ Emerson Gallery, presents four artists from the “television” generation who take the illusionary possibilities of the mechanical and manipulated image for granted. The images are monochromatic, self-conscious, and very well crafted. Curated by George Hemphill, the show offers the opportunity to explore the fascinating metaphysical space created by the invention of photography—with its infinitely receding speculations on the nature and meaning of reality. Three of the show’s four artists—Mark D. Clark, Inga Frick, and Alexandra Solmssen—work with body imagery. The fourth, A. Clarke Bedford, constructs playful homages to old films and photographs.

At what feels like the opposite end of the photographic spectrum (but which may be just another facet of the same destabilizing impulse), the District of Columbia Arts Center’s “Raft of the Refugee” uses journalistic photographs—and “found objects” that relate to the content of the photos—to tell the story of Cuban refugees’ attempts to cross the Straits of Florida. This show is as astonishing and as heartbreaking as the Emerson Gallery show is intellectually and sensually stimulating. One comes away from the two shows amazed at the range of experience that contemporary photography makes possible.

“The Naked and the Tame” is a show about how artists relate to and employ photography to function in a world increasingly defined by the media’s manipulation of reality. In a paradoxical way, the three who work with the body—Clark, Frick, and Solmssen—are using the deceptive, appearance-altering capacity of the medium to regain an understanding of the body experiences that media overlays have distorted. Solmssen does this by enlarging and focusing on images of considerable narrative and sensory power, whose intensity she heightens by painting various portions of the photographic surface. There’s a sense of the film-still about these interrupted visual episodes, and at the same time their visual lushness brings them back into the realm of the tangible, like the body itself. At their best, the works maintain a classical balance between eroticism and idealism, which is used to establish a second balance between the illusion and the underlying reality of the forms represented within it.

Along with large painted gelatin silver prints, Solmssen presents contact sheets, proof prints, sketches, and palettes that indicate steps of the process that has led to the final works. Similarly, Clark’s images of figures mounted on plywood are accompanied by contact sheets and manipulated Xeroxes of proof prints, which give some indication of his working method. Frick includes a carousel of slides of the body and text images she uses to construct her many-layered paintings. But for all these artists, photography is much more than a tool: It is a way of seeing and thinking that suspends the artists between objectification and revelation, and their images between documentation and surveillance. The tension between the latter two that pervades postmodern life is only mildly investigated in these works, but it is there. The opportunity to examine the artists’ working methods offers some insights on the ways they are both trapped in this tension and working to escape it.

Bedford’s photos are witty, punning comments on exotic horror films like The Mummy’s Hand and Nosferatu. His image Nosferatutu shows a toe-shoed dancer with a vampire mask, claw fingers, and a frock coat partially revealing the ballerina’s characteristic ruffled skirt. Beside it hang the vampire mask and toe shoes Bedford used to create the image. A King Tutankhamen cologne-and-soap set appears beside a murky, sepia-toned silver print of a pyramid scene, and a sculpted wax, clay, fabric, and wood arm and hand holding playing cards is suspended beside the photo The Mummy’s Hand. A straw hat and an architectural model appear with The Last of Little Will and Humpty Dumpty at Notre Dame, respectively.

A similar juxtaposition of photographic images of objects and the objects themselves occurs at DCAC, where “Raft of the Refugee” exhibition organizers present inflated and deflated rafts; oars, tools and provisions brought to America by Cuban émigrés; and a selection of black-and-white photographs of rafts and rescue scenes from journalistic sources. (There is also a video documentary on the raft refugees.) The term “raft” is a euphemism, for in most cases the crafts are truck-tire inner tubes or very small inflatable spheres. Those familiar with the Straits of Florida—where, due to the confluence of winds and currents, there are often square waves—will find it hard to imagine such vehicles covering the 90 miles between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

In addition to these smaller objects and photographs, DCAC sent a truck to Florida to obtain one of the larger raft constructions—a wooden platform with a rudimentary sheet-metal-reinforced bow lashed to several inner tubes. This was propelled by a red, white, and blue striped plastic tarp mainsail and a cotton jib, and helped along by oars with shafts of metal pipe. A single larger oar whose 10-foot shaft is iron pipe and whose blade is made of sheet metal (and must weigh at least 25 pounds), is installed so it can be lifted by exhibition visitors. What elsewhere might figure as a bad conceptual art joke (an iron oar?) is transformed into both a poetic and political testimony to the strength of the Cubans’ desire for freedom.

The peculiar reverberations between art and life, image and reality, are exquisitely focused in this strange and moving exhibition. It seems criminal to consider this work art, yet it operates like art. The large raft resembles scores of structures made by artists and art students over the past 40 years to illustrate a range of disillusionment with the situation of the artist and/or society. The tool kit and its rusty contents—hacksaw, wrenches, files, and screwdrivers—have become staples of “found object” installations in several contemporary styles. It is bewildering and disorienting to find them presented not as symbols of decadence and alienation, but as symbols of a belief in the possibilities of freedom few artworkers would be willing to confess. On the other hand, many of the empty-raft photographs’ formal self-consciousness undermines some of their power as documents of despair. (Hemphill’s catalog essay for “The Naked and the Tame” discusses this superficial aestheticization of journalistic images.) Also, the show ignores the political significance of the balsas. Artists who leave Cuba for political reasons are welcomed in the U.S., especially if their art is critical of the Cuban government. Those who come on boats—usually the poor and uneducated—are frequently denied permission to remain.

The exhibition gains additional cultural and political resonance from the echoes in its title of the French painter Theodore Gericault’s 1818-19 painting The Raft of the Medusa, which documented the rescue of survivors of a French Merchant Marine disaster. To construct the painting, the artist interviewed survivors, studied contemporary newspaper accounts, and created a composition in his studio based on high Renaissance models. He subverted that model, however, with a centripetal compositional structure that suggested that the contemporary world he chronicled was falling apart. Gericault’s Raft is considered one of the first “modern” paintings because it looked unflinchingly at contemporary life and destabilized, albeit discreetly, traditional aesthetic structures as a critique of the alienation and despair the artist saw there.

The impulse behind Gericault’s Raft feels similar to the impulse driving DCAC’s “Raft”—to show both what an event looked like and what it meant—which until the invention of photography was the task of the representational painter. The challenge for artists today, in any medium, is to devise ways of avoiding the superficial and manipulative attribution of meaning that has become widespread due to mass-media deployments of mechanically generated images. The media draws on the conventions of real art, but rejects the intellectual and spiritual implications that give real art significance. The artists in “The Naked and the Tame” and the organizers of “Raft of the Refugee” resist media’s neutralizing force by presenting something concrete—either evidence of the artifice-construction process or the real objects that the images dematerialize. The artworkers also demonstrate the enduring power of photography’s claim to present a special kind of truth that (because of the medium’s visual power) is emotionally compelling but often unreliable, and always infinitely elusive.