February 24, 2009

MoCP takes photos to third dimension

Outside the art world, photography has always been considered the standard of visual veracity. It is commonly believed that the photograph represents, and indeed captures, what is actually there. PhotoDimensional, the new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, looks to subtly destabilize this notion of photographic truth by exploring the effects on perception when three-dimensional forms, including sculptures, are represented in two-dimensional photographs. This compact collection of contemporary photographic and mixed-media works pivots on a quotation by conceptual artist/sculptor Robert Morris, used in the museum’s introduction to the exhibition: “It would seem that photography has recorded everything. Space, however, has avoided its cyclopean evil eye.” While the works here do not necessarily posit photography as the devil’s tool seeking to reduce all of humanity to two-dimensional flatness, the works in this collection each feature a unique perspective on space, or the idea of space, in a photograph. Having positioned itself as an exploration of a theoretical relationship, there aren’t any overtly provocative works à la Robert Mapplethorpe or Man Ray in this collection. Instead, there are works like John Coplans’ photographs of his own body in various poses that mimic traditional sculptural poses and a set of mixed-media works by Pello Irazu. Here, the artist uses strategically applied acrylic paint on photographic prints to create trompe l’œils depending on the perspective from which you view the piece. The exhibition also offers a good mix of interactive exhibits like Bettina Hoffman’s La Ronde, a set of three short films where the camera circles a tableau of completely still actors in domestic, intimate situations—at the breakfast table or in the sitting room, waiting for something to happen. Exiting the screening room of La Ronde into Heather Mekkelson’s installation, you get the feeling that you’ve just walked into a photograph of the debris left behind after a hurricane. These engaging, “harmless” works feel perfectly suited to the comfortable three-storey space of the Museum. In PhotoDimensional, the viewer does not feel any of the imposing “artiness” of art exhibitions in the archetypal art gallery or museum. Instead, he feels encouraged to study the work up close and challenge himself to see if he can tease out the boundaries in the piece where the two-dimensional begins to look or feel like the three-dimensional. It’s the sort of “art exhibition” where random tourist couples walking down Michigan Avenue can browse the gallery, stopping before various works and saying to each other, “Wow, this is actually a photograph!” and “Yeah, this looks 3-D.” The real strength of PhotoDimensional lies in the variety of perspectives offered here that never intimidate or shock the observer as most other examples of conceptual art admittedly do. Never appearing consciously “arty,” the exhibit successfully engages the observer in a meditation on the relationship between space and the photograph—or, at least, offers a fun afternoon of spot-the-trick-in-this-“photograph.”Karen Irvine, curator of PhotoDimensional, will lead a tour of the exhibition on Thursday, March 19 at 12:15 p.m. Also, two of the artists featured in PhotoDimensional, Heather Mekkelson and Florian Slowata (who photographed “sculptures” assembled from hotel room furniture), will be at the museum on Wednesday, April 8 to discuss their exhibited works.