Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gallery Visit: Villa Stuck - " Street Life & Home Stories"

In previous courses I have spent a little time visiting and commenting on Munich's many and varied art museums, both to broaden my education, but also to use as subjects for projects and assignments.  On the whole these contain either painting, sculpture, or installation based arts, there is little in the way of dedicated photography exhibits and only occasionally are special exhibitions put on.

This was one of those cases where you wait hours for a bus and then along come 4.  The ongoing exhibition at the Villa Stuck is simply astounding, spread over 3 floors with work from over 20 photographers, ranging from August Sanders through Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman, to contemporary work by Juergen Tillmans and Jeff Wall, to mention but a few.  The focus is on photography of the lives of real people (well mostly, guess Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman stretch this more than a little), looking at the intimacy of personal lives and the anonymity of street photography.  If anything, the exhibition had too broad a scope making it hard to take in at one visit, suspect I will need to go back again.

Street Life and Home Stories: Photographs from the Goetz Collection
Particular highlights for me were
  • August Sander and Walker Evans: Simply to see original prints from these two giants of photography was humbling, in the same way as the first time I saw an original Van Gogh or Monet.  What was also immediately apparent was the level of detail in the prints compared to reproductions in books.  These photographs are such an important record as well as windows on humanity
  • William Eggleston: A series of photographs taken at Graceland after Elvis' death.  The vivid colours and the detail in these prints echoed what I had learned about Eggleston. Another case of starstruck student.
  • Cindy Sherman: I cannot say I am a huge fan of her style, however, she is omnipresent in every history of photography and so interesting to see in the flesh!  What was most remarkable were her later works, huge prints, as ever photographs of Cindy as someone else, but terribly revealing, this is a women who is not afraid of growing old.  This also paralleled an overall trend towards larger photographs as the exhibits became more recent.
  • Nan Goldin: These were the hardest photographs to look at, the intimacy of her portrayal of the death from AIDS of close friends was terrifying, a very powerful use of photography.
  • Nobuyoshi Araki: Another artist whose work at the exhibit portrayed death and at an almost obscenely personal level.  His photographs of his dying wife almost seem too intrusive, but after all he chronicled their entire life together in every aspect.
One artist stood out for me, Tobias Zielony, with his study of Trona, California.  This town is typical of many small American towns, dependent on a single employer who fails leaving the town with literally nothing to fall back on.  Zielony's work is quite different from other German photographers such as those of the Duesseldorf school (Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer both had work in the exhibit), in that it is very much centred upon people and their struggle with the modern world.  The photographs are very reminiscent of Stephen Shore, the colours and the framing echo his style, however, he adds more edge into the imagery.  They carry a real sense of deprivation and despair.

Second to the content was the presentation.  This was the first major photographic exhibit I have attended and I was very much interested in how the prints were framed and presented.  The style was very simply, pine coloured frames with white passepartouts hung on a white wall.  The hanging was also very carefully planned, with several walls covered in huge grids of small images, in other cases, very large prints had the space to themselves.  The overall impression was that the photographs had the space in which to speak without overt influence from the gallery.  Exceptions to this existed, several sequences were projected rather than hung.  A particularly effective series was projected onto the floor allowing a look down vantage onto photographs shot from directly above their subjects, placing the viewer in the position of the photographer ( Francis Alys).  Another sequence was of 700 simple prints displayed in small free standing white frames arranged on a series of shelves.  The prints were simple in execution, but not content, the gathering of so many prints together created a strong sense of entering the world of the photographers (Elmgreen & Dragset).

Taken as a whole the exhibition was an excellent gathering of work spanning nearly a century of art photography, however, the overall sense I was left with was one of sadness and dejection.  As uplifting as it was to see these original works, by many photographers I have grown to admire, the subject was mostly gloomy, dealing with social deprivation and death, both physical and metaphorical.  The work was about the "Other", the dispossessed, the unfortunate, the interesting victims of modern society that we are drawn to, like moths to a flame.  Good news is no news, we want to learn about failure and disaster.  The exhibit did contain moments of happiness and even mundaneness, but the most powerful work dwelt on sorrow in its various forms.

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