I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans
Regen Projects
Through December 6th

(Disclaimer -- though I encourage a visit to Tillmans' current show at Regen, this article is an essay and not a review of the show)

Holly Myers recently wrote an interesting comment on the work of Wolfgang Tillmans in the L.A. Times. She said, “Central to Tillmans’ career has been an extended flirtation with banality, pursued not merely for its own sake, in a spirit of slacker irony, but with the deep, philosophical conviction that no aspect of the social, physical or political world is devoid of meaning or unworthy of investigation. If individual images occasionally fall flat out of context . . . it needn’t detract from virtue of the pursuit and the value of such a holisitic perspective.” In other words, as the title of Tillmans’ Tate catalogue says, “if one thing matters, everything matters.”

Tillmans’ photos certainly try to live up to this non-hierarchical vision of the world – they are marked by the inclusion of everything from clouds to clubs, rubbish in the road to concords in the sky. Tillmans’ practice is inclusive as well, a composite of pretty much every approach to photography. He’s a journalist, tracking culture from the fringe to politics to parties. He’s a conceptualist, adjusting the size and shape of his photos and manipulating how they are hung for conceptual purposes. He’s what I would call a concrete photographer, one who physically manipulates the digital and traditional printing process to produce strange effects and abstractions. He’s a portraitist. He’s a naturalist. He’s a fashion photographer. In fact, the only type of photographer to which I cannot associate Tillmans is what I’d call the sound stage or staged photographer. Tillmans lives, decidedly, in the world of the snapshot.

But, I’d say, we shouldn’t be duped into actually believing that Tillmans’ vision is completely non-hierarchical and holistic –the idea that we can use the banal or ordinary to level the world, that in fact, everything is worthy of investigation. Representation (our images of stuff in the world) always brings forth an ethic and it is impossible for representation to be completely non-hierachical and holistic. Photography is always philosophical – it, by its nature as a mechanical device that deals with the world, divides and parcels the world. No matter how much it is negotiated through techniques and twists and turns (even if you take the film out of the camera, soak it in whiskey, and then expose it to paper), photography takes a stand on things – there is a choice about what will be represented (even if the choice is to try to represent nothing). You cannot be everything at once, photography is making choices to the exclusion of other choices. Tillmans does not believe that everything is worthy of investigation – if he did, he would try to be all things to all people. This is obviously not the case.

Let’s look at Tillmans. His work is full of all sorts of moral choices. For instance when he takes a celebrity portrait, he makes a point to strip away the poses that generally mark how we view celebrities. He decidedly wants the portraits to look as ordinary as possible, as if Kate Moss is just a next door neighbor in a depressed but vibrant part of hipster Berlin. Tillmans also tries his best to avoid any sentimentalized views of landscape – we see dirty snow, offhand airplane window or cockpit views of clouds, sometimes a landscape is distorted or manipulated during the printing process to leave abstract shards or dots of light on the surface. Furthermore, he likes aesthetic moments of happenstance – the folds of dirty clothes, half eaten food, random configurations on window sills.

Tillmans is clearly a political activist, likes leftist causes, and laments the state of things in German society – I think of his poignant anti-homeless device, 2000. He likes sexual liberation, equality of gender and sexual orientation, and party culture whether one finds it in apartments, in clubs, or on the lawn of a park. He thinks that war (at all times) is senseless and serves no purpose other than death.

All of these things that Tillmans does aligns his vision against all the other possible visions one could take when approaching the world and photography. His way of doing things is not holistic -- it is to the exclusion of all the other ways you can do things. Now if he placed a fully sentimentalized view of suburban bliss with an American flag on the lawn (and actually believed in the virtue of such a photograph) next to his photograph from the underside of someone’s genitals, well, that might be a little more inclusive, but Tillmans is Tillmans.

I guess what I am trying to say is that to say that the worth of Tillmans’ practice as photographer lies in the virtues of “the pursuit and the value” of a “holisitic perspective” does not tell us much about Tillmans. In fact it may detract from the fact that Tillmans decidedly does have a highly edited, specific, and even limited way of doing things – at least conceptually, we can figure him out.

Tillmans is many things, but each of his many things can be thought about and accessed. For instance, I would say that Tillmans' photographs are not particularly good examples of any one of the formal strategies that he employs. In terms of politics, he’s not Han Haacke and can actually be slightly annoying with his fussy display cases and Tony Blairs in rumpled socks. On the fringe, he’s neither Nan Goldin nor Cathy Opie and can be sentimental to a fault. For conceptualism, Jeff Wall and the Bechers seem to set the standard. I often struggle to find a purpose for Tillmans’ conceptual interventions – there’s often no clear reason why he makes certain decisions. For portraits, I go Nadar or to Thomas Struth’s families. Naturalism – well, Timothy O’Sullivan. For concrete photography, Jim Welling. And fashion? I won’t go there, I can’t go there, I have no idea.

However, I can honestly say that no living photographer has taken as many photographs that I can remember instantly as Wolfgang Tillmans. There is a set of them literally burned onto my retina. Each of these unexplainable gems are all vastly different from each other -- different subjects, different people, and there is no particular good reason why any or all of them should stick with me. In other words, I can and cannot explain Tillmans. He seems to be less and more than the sum of his parts.

The Bell from 2002 was the first photograph by Tillmans to do it. At first, I did not recognize what the image was because I was disoriented from having seen photos both shot in the starkest realism and complete abstraction while walking through his MCA Chicago retrospective. The Bell started out abstract, a few brilliant blurred color bursts on wet metal, a set of Christmas lights maybe. Then, I slowly came to find out that this was a trough style men’s urinal, the wet is presumably urine, and the burst of color, urinal scented cakes. What dazzled me about this moment was that the moment continued to dazzle. I am usually squeamish when it comes to things like this, but Tillmans didn’t offend me – it was beautiful.

Then there’s Kate with Broccoli, 1996. Yes, it is Kate Moss, but remarkably Kate Moss. Before encountering this photograph, I had this theory that of all contemporary people, we probably know the body of Moss the best – every square inch has been photographed over and over and not just by forgettable Fashion mag folk but artists, really good artists. Every pube, every pore, every toe – it is really outlandish if you think about it. Tillmans, in his photo, did not try to make her look shabby or unusual. Instead he made an art composition out of her, combining Matisse’s Red Room with a casual look you might find in a snapshot of your own family. And then the broccoli? Where did it come from? How did he ever think of it? She might has well be holding a brain – what a cannon shot!

Okay, one more. Gillian and Christopher on floor, 1993. Slightly off tilt, it is a play fight between what have to be two lovers. I love how Gillian’s legs and back form two diagonals that counter the downward thrust of Christopher centered black mass. I love how Gillian’s arm roughly matches the little strip of molding in the background. The rigor of the formalist composition is lightened by the subject matter and by the fact that Gillian is topless – simply topless, not in an overt way but topless as though it was her natural state. This is such a fun and completely erotic image – it’s also a clear affirmation of the good stuff of life.

I’ve named just three. Others include Paul, New York, 1994, Window, New Inn Yard, 1997, Untitled (La Gomera), 1997, Lutz & Alex looking at crotch, 1991, and White Jeans on White, 1991. There are so many great Tillmans photographs, but I should also say that there are ten times as many photographs by Tillmans that I will never remember, that mean nothing to me, and I would consider, at the end of study, to just not be very good. The ones that are good, however, are very good indeed -- in a non-holistic, specific sort of way.