Frozen in Light / A Roomful of Images / Photography in Chicago
24 Sept, 2004
Review by Margaret Hawkins, Chicago Sun-Times
The Family of Man" was Edward Steichen's famous 1955 New York exhibition of black-and-white photos that showed his panoramic view of life around the world from infancy to death, encompassing a range of emotion and experience that had as its theme the universality of human life itself. The same year, the photos were published in a coffee-table book, which became an instant classic, delivering this body of work and its snapshots-of-everyday-life-all-over-the-world format into the mainstream culture. Since then, it's become a kind of collective memory, especially for Americans who grew up in the 1950s and '60s.
The memory of this book came to mind in viewing "Frozen in Light," an unusual group photography show at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. The show is nothing like Steichen's collection in scale or grandeur, nor does it pretend to be. Still, on a much smaller scale there is something sweeping and ambitious in its reach that brought the other show to mind.
Hung salon-style from floor to ceiling and including around 130 photos by 23 Chicago-area artists, the show fills all the ample space in Lieberman's main gallery. What's unusual is that curator Matthew Goebel intentionally mixed the photos so that rather than presenting each artist in a way that makes us focus on his or her style and point of view, we see the installation as a work in itself, a statement about the breadth of human experience that is greater than a single artist's ideas.
This still-respectful but non-precious treatment of art and artists is refreshing. I hadn't been reminded lately of how rare it is until I saw this show. It suggests collaboration, working in ensemble the way a theater or dance company does. Not that these artists worked together to make a unified statement; they didn't. But the curator's presentation blends them, like voices are blended to create a harmonious chorus.
The viewer must look up and down and back and forth and, if he wants to know who did what, must consult a complicated gallery map that identifies each piece. The effect is a kind of orchestrated presentation of different points of view that bounces around the viewer's attention among different images, just as in group conversation each speaker is identifiable by an opinion and a perspective that remains distinct though it is colored by the opinions of others.
Similarly, these photos appear to be in dialogue with one another so that every 30th photo or so, such as one of Martha Williams' portraits of young girls with their fathers, speaks up. These make us think about the indelible imprint of genetics, about family traditions, habits, closeness, secrets and conflict. They are interspersed with Mark Hauser's portraits of passed-out, morning- after bodies at a 1970s rock concert, which in turn are interspersed with Sandro's obese nude torsos pressed on glass and photographed from below. It goes on. Karen Hoyt's stark views of architecture argue with Glenn Grafelman's intense, blurry racetrack photos, which disagree with Brian Ulrich's sweeping fluorescent-lit views of megastores, packed with gluts of harshly lit merchandise (more of his provocative photos are on view at Peter Miller this month).
As an overview of Chicago photographers, this is a quirky personal selection that could be argued to be missing some obvious names. Where are Dawoud Bey and Patty Carroll? And some of the abstract photos seem weaker than the rest of the work -- or at least less engaged in the lively dialogue.
But the accumulated sense of life as we live it in these photos speaks of a range of experience from isolation to tranquility to insensate consumption. There is a big, satisfying fugue of life going on here, of babies being born, derelicts passing out on lawns, tattooed men playing chess somewhere in London and enough shopping opportunities at Target to keep us all numb with mass-produced goods for the rest of our lives.
The nice thing about this show is that there is no point we have to get, no single tricky theme we are meant to tease out of some complicated or obscure artist's metaphor. We supply the script for what it all means; it reminds us of how we all live two lives, in a sense, one private and one communal. It suggests the noisy simultaneous life going on around and among us, the life of a population and a landscape rather than a single stingy idea or viewpoint. It reminds us of how diverse and vibrant and depraved and full of grace and problems all our lives are, whether we notice it or not. This show helps us notice.