The truth is that the Armory Show, simply by the sheer number of exhibitors, offers something for just about anybody. But for those interested in the contemporary photography, this year’s offerings were harder to find and, in some cases, harder to understand. Very few of the exhibitors focused on photography, so for two days, I spent a good amount of time poking around booths, trying to identify any sort of pattern or movement or general drift in the works being shown. While certainly the show emphasized international (or perhaps global?) artists, and while certain painterly strokes seemed to be leaning toward figural work and representations of war, violence, and conflict, the photography was all over the map. This is not a criticism, of course; it’s simply an observation that I make because the Armory Show often signals the rise of new movements or artistic impulses. For those of us interested in contemporary photography and photographers, the show certainly didn’t suggest any obvious rippling current.
Still, the amount of interesting and challenging photography—often hidden on the B-side walls of booths—made the show worth a slow walk through. Of course, Aperture was there with their lively and informative staff, and the booth was always packed tight with visitors. Sean Kelly Gallery and Luciana Brito both had impressive collections of work on view, with the latter having some stunning images by Thomaz Farkas. Higher Pictures was exhibiting an impossible-to-ignore series of photographs by George Dureau. Dureau’s images of the French Quarter in the 70s and 80s seemed to draw people to them. I was no exception, and I found myself jostling others to try to get in a bit closer. Despite their staging, the images are disarming and convey a vulnerability that speaks across time. Many, like the image of an obese man on a porch or the image of B. J. Robinson—a man without legs—are desperate images. Not sad or depressing, but desperate in the sense that their subjects seem somehow disconnected from you even though they are so clearly trying to be seen and heard. What I noticed in myself and others is that for however much we all seemed drawn to the images, we couldn’t linger with them because to live with the subject in his or her circumstance was too uncomfortable. It exposed, I think, a voyeuristic impulse, and it challenged all of us to move beyond that to compassion. If compassion meant lingering, living with, and seeing with clear eyes the experience of the subject, I failed, and I get the sense that my failure is the result of Dureau walking a very, very thin line between inviting us in and insisting on our ultimate inability to meet these folks on their own terms, to actually see them on their own terms. I felt chastened by the work.
Part of the global focus of Armory probably explains why cultural and social issues seemed to emerge with such force throughout it. Many booths exhibited work detailing the plight of people of color within systems that oppress or exclude them, and the crowds seemed to be receptive, if also primarily (and predictably) white and affluent. The juxtaposition between the champagne bar at the front of the show and the numerous exhibitions highlighting various social justice issues surely was not lost on others. The protest on race that occurred midway through the Show suggests that more visible and nuanced discussion needs to occur about how contemporary fine art survives within a tenuous space between the desire for social justice and the inability to move beyond exploitive systems that animate both art markets and social inequality. Whether Armory can reasonably be expected to be a place for examining that space is open to debate. It is not, nor has any obligation to be, a place to foster social change. But, the sheer excess of the show certainly draws attention to how the artists’ hope for action can be lost in fits of buying, selling, and consumption.
Social commentary certainly pervaded work throughout Armory, but so did experimentation in process and subject and work that might be considered more or less traditional. David Zwirner featured some stunning abstractions by Thomas Ruff’s Photograms series, and Bruce Silverstein had an installation of Mishka Henner’s images of pumpjacks in fields of various colors and textures. Photographed from the sky, the images look at a distance like colorful abstracts, with wide variations in line and shape. At the center of each image, usually where a scar in the landscape ends, an oil pumpjack sits in a cleared out, rough and barren square. Only through closer examination can you see the pumpjack itself, and the way that it disrupts the land around it—breaking angles and tearing out color—surely is at the heart of the message here.
Yossi Milo’s exhibition of the work of Chris McCaw also drew on abstraction, but in the case of McCaw, the images—black and white but quite literally burned through in various places by extended exposure to the sun—are an experimentation more in process and form and less in subject. The work strikes me as that of a deliberate and patient artist, and while those who are less interested in the art scene might see this as yet another example of Armory excess or self-indulgence (there was this year a trash bag—art—sitting out in a booth for gawkers to ponder), I think it is far from that. Instead, I think of these images more like ruminations, considerations of the limits of photography. How does an art form reliant on light and some befuddling chemistry possibly define itself as more than simply picture taking? I’m not sure precisely how successful McCaw is, but the work is as intellectually challenging as Dureau’s is emotionally, and while I think it relies on a certain degree of knowledge by the viewer to make its case, I still found it making an impact on me. There is something meditative about them, something more than intellectual, and I think they point us to the impact made-photos have on those willing to experience them.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.