An Analysis of the 2017 Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers at the Norton Museum
The Norton Museum of Art is exhibiting the finalists for the Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers. “Emerging” is one of those art world words that is essentially a euphemism that translate as: Not quite big time enough to be considered a blue chip art star and yet an achiever of a modest semi-established exhibition and sales record perhaps worthy of a small provincial museum exhibition…. A terrible term to be sure, the concept of “emerging” as it is employed in the Rudin Prize show is both condescending to the artists shown and insulting to those thinkers and artists, established or not, who value the phenomenon of evolution, process, maturation, and discovery… It is one of those linguistic markers art critics and curators employ to write the strange and mysterious cartography of contemporary art. It may be time to steal this troubled little word back…
Emerging… it is a passive-aggressive term at best, in the hands of half-hearted art critics conjured as a meridian in the world of art-speak. It is a failure of imagination, both from a lexicographical and a semiotic standpoint.
From the Middle French “emerger” and the Latin “emergere” or “bringing to light, bringing forth, and come up” as in a plant seeking the rays of the sun in a dusty semi-lit apartment… The implication with emerging as employed with “artist” is the notion of improvement, of coming forth from a place that was darker, and less than the current position, the current place held, approaching a level of career respectability… But what if this troublesome word could be re-scripted to imply a striving, an enhancement and a constant multi-directional yearning for discovery, for something better. Surely Yoko Ono is still emerging in her eighties?, Richter? and even Rauschenberg too (albeit posthumously)… Cindy Sherman? Well…
With regards to the Rudin Prize, the “Emerging” is meant to denote contemporary artists who use photography as the central medium in their work and who have not yet achieved a status as top sellers or exhibitors within the hazy, confusing, and labyrinthine hierarchy of the gallery or academic realms.
The four artists featured, Clare Benson, Elizabeth Bick, Alexandra Hunts, and Wesley Stringer, were nominated by more established senior contemporary photographers Arno Minkkinen, Shirin Neshat, Rineke Dijkstra, and Michael Kenna, respectively. Curated by Tim B. Wride, the Norton Museum of Art’s William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, the exhibition unwittingly provides an illustrated manifesto on the relationship between sociological inquiry and image-making among young artists today in terms of the work featured and the subject-matter of photos shown.
Make no mistake, this show is a cold demonstration of art as concept that drives the production of image-making. In short, the artists each utilize a personal approach to their craft that requires the reading of extensive conceptual background information, biographical notes and various other bits of textual instruction manuals in order to enter the zone of their intellectual aspirations. Here art exists solely in reference to something else. It cannot exist, or be (emerge?) on its own.
For the Rudin Prize, these so-called “emerging” artists will dream of one day entering the collector’s stratosphere of million dollar prices for their works. For now, they are displayed in a four-person quasi-intellectually-relevant show that tantalizingly illustrates the ambitions and downfalls of photography as repressed sociological forays attempting to masquerade as self-discovery, visual wit, and conceptual sculpture.
Clare Benson’s photographs feature the artist in various poses and non-poses caught in the middle of performative gestures that designate or symbolize the artist’s blue-collar background. Specifically, in works like “The Shepherd’s Daughter”, the artist evokes woman in the wild imagery in a feminist response to the archetype of the man in the wild fighting nature tropes common throughout art history and viewed in an especially flamboyant phenomenon, The Revenant, a film directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Benson writes of her mother dying while she was young. Her childhood destiny followed a path of growing up with her father, an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Her work appears to be a meditation on the physical and psychical evolution of her past, from girl to woman, heavily influenced by the masculine pastimes of hunting, skinning and mounting wild animals.
Overall the impression I am left with is that the acts of making these works are more interesting than the resultant photographs themselves. While Benson’s story, like all family historiographies, contains many poignant memories and utterances, they are not necessarily the stuff of epic art or even memorable photographs to the non-family member.
The central phenomenological component of her work is the exploration of rural America and its notions of manhood through the depiction of herself. Her “self” is indeed the principal material around which she builds her photographic records. The works themselves are produced digitally in archival color pigment prints and provide an almost scrapbook quality of flatness in both color and pictorial composition.
Archival pigment prints are the digital photographer’s attempt at achieving reputable picture quality in an enlarged physical form. The unfortunate result, however efficient and affordable for printing and archiving purposes, is a series of photographs that look cheaply-created, plasticy in appearance, and colder than the Alaskan wilderness shown in Benson’s images.
Elizabeth Bick’s work is represented by a series of photographs of crowds and random individuals shot in The Pantheon in Rome, on city sidewalks and in other venues. The Pantheon is famous for hits open dome that allows both sunlight and the elements of precipitation to fall directly into the structure. The intense contrast between the dim interior and the blazing shafts of natural light illuminating the viewers is captured theatrically by the artist. The works depict tourists shielding the light from their eyes and in various states of quasi-excitement and intrigue, hinting at, but not quite reaching, awe. The Chromogenic prints offer a filmic display of moments in heavy chiaroscuro befitting of the Italian setting.
Simple snapshots, the photographs provide a more documentary-like aesthetic than a visceral or artistic one and remain cute and perhaps even amusing in the way travel photos are for relatives of those who went abroad, despite falling short of the sublime and never escaping their banality.
I’ve always loved the word “sculptress”. The feminine denomination of “sculptor” provides an apt and luminous way to enter the oeuvre of Alexandra Hunts. Working with photographs in variously three dimensional iterations (artist books, stacks/series of photos, she is more of a sculptress than a photographer. While she is exhibited as a photographer in the Rudin Prize exhibition, her work employs picture-making as but one aspect of her concept-based art forms. Her exploration of physicality and ephemera (weights and measures, the flow of time and the range of typologies as evidence in the cultivation of apples) make her an artist whose development flows within the conceptual traditions of Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. Concept becomes manifest in three dimensions through banal things. They are then photographed and made into framed pictures, artist books, and other forms.
In Search from 2016, the artist meticulously weighs apples by the kilogram in the middle of an orchard. Once the proper amount is weighed, she photographs them formally displayed as in some scientific manual. The video displayed on her website (http://www.alexandrahunts.com/2015/search/) gives viewers a three-channel view of the processual nature of this work.
The physical and material grounds of Hunts’s work make up the conceptual underpinnings in a multi-disciplinary approach to mind puzzles. The intrigue lies in the momentary mental points of reflection that result. Hunts engages the metaphysics, pataphysics and simple physicality of materiality and gesture to illumine. There is a surrealist and psychotic, obsessive element to her explorations and they easily provide the most intellectually-fulfilling presence in the exhibition even though the resultant photographic works displayed serve more as documentary evidence than aesthetic experiences in themselves.
Wesley Stringer’s visitations of rural landscapes, windows, and various nature scenes in undisclosed, banal locations provide an insight into the artist’s origins in Oklahoma. The works exhibited in the exhibition, color archival pigment prints as well as micro photographs boxed into hand-made pieces called “Box of Birds”, make for a disparate representation by the artist.
There is the wanderer and chronicler of abject rural banality on the one hand and the sophisticated and precious black and white picture-maker on the other. The color photos are flat, spare, intentionally over-exposed and devoid of vibrancy in what can only be an intentionally-conceptual illustration of the blankness and economic vacuity of rural America.
There is a poignancy to Stringer’s work. There is also a richer and more consumer-friendly side to his oeuvre as evidenced by his mostly black and white portraits of skinny and seductive, mysterious and somewhat cliché female models, neither of which are exhibited in the Rudin show.
The question one must ask viewing the four artists presented is one of the relationship between the aesthetic and the intellectual. At what point does intellectualism and conceptual art become a practice that defines art-making by virtue of its knowledge-heavy influences and the will to find a conceptual justification for the existence of the work made? Did the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a product of the American-Puritanical pragmatic ethos, come to reign quietly over contemporary art in America in an invisible and implied influence over most artists who practice photography, sculpture and painting today? Does such an influence lead to a false form of knowledge inquiry, a superficial, rigorless and mostly irrelevant sociological approach to art-making that turns today’s artworks into self-indulgent provocations, propaganda or psycho-sexual self-immolations?
There is no doubting the display of mock intellectualism masquerading as self-discovery in much of the underlying premise in today’s artists and the Rudin Exhibition protagonists are no exception. I indict the culture of contemporary art, more specifically, it’s academic gate-keepers who use the under-regulated confines of art departments in academe as playgrounds for their socio-political agendas exploring and deconstructing everything from the color of one’s skin to one’s gender and sexual orientation where the work that results is mostly stifled with ressentiment.
To make identity the center-piece of today’s conceptualism is to make the art process an exercise of self-exploration, one better suited to meditation and philosophical treatises than to painting, photography or sculpture. Artists broach dangerous risks when they make themselves, their histories and their autobiographical politics the ground and the source material upon and with which they build their work. The risk is one of self-parody and the trivialization of genuine existential oppression, violence and injustice.
In short, art based on the identity politics ideology often manifests itself as a crudely and narcissistically utilized methodology. If you ever want to see a patently dysfunctional and anti-intellectual methodology in play then visit an art faculty meeting or faculty hiring process. You will be amazed at the superficiality and pedantry surrounding gender, culture and other ideological markers of identity among the so-called professors of progressive art-making. What results is often a debasing of intellectual integrity at the service of obsessive-compulsive identity fetishism.
The autobiographical or sociological inquiry of one’s self (identity) is the poor neglected offspring of philosophical inquiry, an attempt to explore and explain the social, its phenomena, and its milieus through a variety of lenses: marriage, gay sexuality, racism, demographics, etc…
Sociology is the problem child of philosophy that likes to pretend it is cooler than mom and dad while coloring its hair blue and piercing its various body parts in an outcry of self-referential attention-seeking. The piercings and hair colorings are attention-grabbers but they do not convey any more gravity than say a bad tattoo or artificially-distressed designer jeans.
Within the context of contemporary art sociological inquiry is employed to less than scientific ends, devoid of rigor and peer-review, and leaning more towards psychological examinations of the artist’s ego and his/her place in the world. It is, in short, the path artists tread as an intellectual justification for their work. The resultant art works often require the reading of some form of introductory text/context, an art-speak instruction manual that provides entry into the practitioner’s world in much the same way one reads the instructions (or constructions as my dad calls them) of cheap Chinese-fabricated toys presented with love and a blissful lack of awareness regarding the exploitative origins of the product’s manufacturing process.
Much of today’s contemporary art practitioners seek intellectual and conceptual justification from their peers and betters, for their work, first and foremost, robbing the creative process and its output of any mystery and spiritually transcendental opportunities. Art becomes a form of knowledge-seeking, inherently prosaic and blind to the poetic origins of craft and making that characterize aletheia.
There is no end in sight to the wounded intellectual potential of sociological inquiry among many of today’s self-referential pseudo-political artists because of the demise of the belief in passion, beauty, joy, pleasure, kindness, love and other more traditional aesthetic concepts and affects that characterized artists who saw their place in the world as one of enhancement and spiritual inquiry. Such phenomena that guided most of modern art’s output up to World War II have been assumed or presumed dead by the ideological progenitors of what is called “contemporary art”. To be sure, contemporary art is more an ideology than a term used to define art of the present day.
This is art’s playing field and perhaps its central conceit today: a will to intellectual legitimacy through picture and object-making endeavors that pre-require an engagement with various lexicons of cultural and political discourses. Contemporary art has become the handmaiden of academic theorists. The artists are the aesthetic mouthpieces of their textual masters precisely because the lovely seductive passions of intellectual training and philosophical rigor necessary to write comprehensible and culturally relevant work remain all-too-elusive and hidden from minds that cannot fathom beauty and joy in life or art, or the dedicated rigorous research and learning required to think and write insightfully within any epistemological pathway, from any tradition. In fact contemporary art, by nature, rejects the notion of tradition and the artist’s emergence from it or need to engage with it. This negation of intellectual lineage and continuity is precisely the intellectual shortcoming of most of today’s contemporary art production.
Art’s attempt to be “new” or “novel” in this way pre-disposes most artists to a false and sterile game of intellectual solitaire, perpetuating the Romantic myth of the singular artist but reducing his or her conceptual aspirations to a superficial gamesmanship.
If there is one thing that undergirds the entirety of the exhibition at the Norton Museum it is the use of photography to illustrate and convey processes in intellectual and emotional navigation by the artists presented. The photos rarely transcend the conceptual origins to become Works that resonate independently. Mostly, these are works (with a small “w”) and for many (those lacking in ambition and perhaps art historical training) that is just fine. For viewers wanting more, the show will leave you a bit cold and perhaps disinterested, maybe mildly amused the way one would feel modestly piqued by say, a Cosmopolitan magazine sex survey or an Internet click-bait scheme entitled “And the Camera Kept Rolling..”.
That the winner of the $20,000 Rudin Prize went to Elizabeth Bick, the creator of the most banal and the most publicly-engaged work in the show, may be viewed as an utterance by the voting committee of its preference for work that attempts to escape the self and the artist as subjecthood. It is interesting that the winner of the “People’s Choice” Award, voted by visitors to the exhibition, was Wesley Stringer, author of the most visually-evocative photographs and sculptures presented.
Despite the realms of disappointment and predictability permeating The Rudin Prize artists there is much to learn from the exhibition. It is a current example of art as sociology, as quasi- or pseudo-intellectual inquiry, primarily of the self-centered variety, where the art practice is subsumed by the articulation and predisposition of some form of cerebral endeavor, devoid of emotion, removed from passion, and visually flat, like illustrations in a 1960s biology textbook.
It will be left to the viewer to ponder the meaning of emerging.