Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Feldmann’s Tact
Christopher Brayshaw

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s recent exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery implies a staged confrontation between two antagonistic versions of photographic history. 100 Years (2001), a series of one hundred and one black-and-white portrait photographs, is installed in the larger B.C. Binning Gallery. Each subject’s specificity is enhanced by the camera’s sharp focus and the artist’s attentiveness to the smallest details of physiognomy and gesture, which enables his sitters’ personalities to fully emerge.

In the smaller Alvin Balkind Gallery, the look of the late 1960s, of photography as, or in the service of, conceptual art, predominates. Unframed prints are ganged along the wall in sequences and series. Many hang from long thin pins; the curled edges of the prints shiver as you pass. Other pictures are gathered in books or cheaply bound and printed booklets, and laid out on a white examination table, with their places marked by blurry black-and-white photocopies of their covers. The pins and the table are deliberate artistic choices. They indicate that the photographs are not unique and precious, but rather containers for content, or “information,” in 1960s-speak. The aesthetics of display indicate that the content of each individual image is insignificant. A single picture of a ripe strawberry, or a car radio, or the view from a hotel room window is meaningless on its own. Only when these banal images are joined as a sequence or series under the guiding hand of a larger anthropological, sociological, or philosophical program, as in the work of artists such as Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, or Feldmann himself, do they yield deeper meanings.

These considerations are reinforced by the many different styles Feldmann employs. The single berries that comprise One Pound of Strawberries are shot in lush colour and high-focus close-up, a “look” meant to inflame desire, a kind of visual pornography I associate with the Woodward’s and Stong’s grocery flyers delivered to my parents’ West Vancouver home in the 1970s. Other pictures, of sunsets or of brilliant blue skies marked by white wisps of cloud, emulate the look of photographic amateurism, or, alternately, the bank calendar/corporate lobby photomural landscapes reproduced to devastating effect by artists such as Vikky Alexander, Louise Lawler, and Lynn Cohen.

By juxtaposing these styles with appropriated commercial studio portraits, landscapes, amateur snapshots, pornography, and others, Feldmann puts the whole question of photographic style into quotation marks. Style, here, is not the expression of a unique sensibility or subjectivity, but a grammar, a set of rhetorical tools chosen for its ability to perform specific work, or to do a particular job. Style is something that can be freely chosen, put on, taken off, or recombined, just like the items that make up All the Clothes of a Woman (1973), another Feldmann photosequence from the 1970s.

Feldmann’s thinking about style differs from that of other artists who employ appropriated images, such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger. All three artists use appropriated photographs, or cropped details from the same, to question notions of photographic authenticity, and to explore how the meanings of images change as they are produced and reproduced in a kind of Borgesian infinite regression. Feldmann is not concerned by photography’s capacity for infinite reproducibility; he seems to take this as a fundamental characteristic of the medium, and, as such, not specifically worthy of attention.

Many commentators on Feldmann’s work describe the enormous image archive his various projects are drawn from. Indeed, Feldmann seems to make no distinction between photographs he has made, and photographs taken by others and re-presented by him. A Sherrie Levine copy of an Edward Weston or Walker Evans photograph, on the other hand, derives its critical authority from the recognition that the image presented under Levine’s name is not originally hers, that it has been wrestled from another artist, as if by force. Levine’s works allude to an inter-generational struggle whereby young artists gain critical space for their own work by overturning or transfiguring the work of prior generations. Feldmann sidesteps this farcical “quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.” If an appropriated image serves his purpose, he cheerfully employs it. If he cannot find a suitable photograph, he makes a new image himself. Feldmann, thus, shifts the critical focus of his work away from the by now clichéd distinction between “original” and “appropriated” photography by letting his program of work guide his decisions to make or take images.

Some Feldmann projects, like Birgit (2006), All the Clothes of a Woman, or Women in Prison (2005), depend on the artist’s special relationships with his subjects. Feldmann knows more about them than we do; his camera goes places and records things in a way that reflects his ability to negotiate privileged “backstage” access. Other photographs, like those comprising 11 Bilder (1969), an early bookwork documenting women’s knees, could have been made by anyone. Feldmann’s specifications and limitations shape and guide the project, but its photographs are deliberately banal, anartistic, “unauthored.”

Significantly, Feldmann does not assign different aesthetic weights to these projects. His tact and restraint imply an equality between them. The subtlety of this gesture obscures the radical philosophical position behind it. By implying an aesthetic equivalence between his different projects, between artist-made and appropriated imagery, and between singular images and images whose meaning depends upon their being linked with others in sequences and series, Feldmann short-circuits the Hegelian narratives of succession and displacement governing Western art history. Conceptual and stylistic linearity is dispersed into a field, or fields, of possibilities, turning viewers’ attention back to the content of each individual work. The staged confrontation implied by the exhibition’s installation at the Contemporary Art Gallery is revealed as a conceptual gesture in its own right, one that pits supposedly incompatible techniques and styles against each other, yet ultimately finds equal value in both.

This paradox—that content had to vanish, that artists had to believe, or pretend to believe, in the “dematerialization” of content in order to re-engage with it—is an old theme in the history of conceptual art. But the paradox’s applicability is not limited to conceptualism. Indeed, it is integral to depiction itself, a position that can be illustrated by reference to some of Feldmann’s extended series, such as his ongoing portraits of “car radios while good music was playing.” These snapshot photographs show what they purport to depict: there the radios are, and the humour of the pictures resides in our recognition that the ostensible content of the work—“good music”—cannot be represented photographically. While the pictures purport to document an event, that documentation is profoundly incomplete. We cannot tell, for example, whether Mozart, Gnarls Barkley, Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan inspired Feldmann’s picture-making.

It is easy to liken the car radio series to other conceptually related projects by artists like Douglas Huebler or Robert Barry, whose photographs deliberately fail to capture content, thereby gesturing at photography’s representational limits. This is a critique of the omniscience of picture-making. But good representations—pictures—have always been at pains to acknowledge these limits. The blurs, mismatched contours, and raw surfaces of Cézanne’s late paintings are a way of getting at the same thing: a content, whether the colour of leaves or a song on a car radio, that can only be represented indirectly, by being gestured at, or pointed towards. In this way, sophisticated picture-making always stops short of claims of universal mastery, remaining open, its structure flexible, like an earthquake-proof building designed to flex but not collapse when the ground moves under it.

Feldmann’s tact, then, is not to ally his work with “conceptual art,” “straight photography,” or that weirdest of bastard offspring, “photoconceptualism,” but with these older forms of depiction that permeate photography, forms that do not require their practitioners to choose between competing versions of history, but simply render many different ways of depicting simultaneously available to artists like Feldmann who have the intelligence, wit, and good judgment to employ them.

Image: Hans-Peter Feldmann, 100 Years (detail)

About the Author

Christopher Brayshaw is an independent Vancouver-based critic, curator, bookseller, and photographer.

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