BY Michael Wilson in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Overnight to Many Cities

BY Michael Wilson in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

A middle-aged man in shorts sits transfixed before a roaring barbecue, clutching a small tin of fuel. The title of Stephen Scheer‚s photograph identifies the figure as a camper, but his flabby, glistening torso and lazy smile are more suggestive of a displaced couch potato. It is a knowingly debased image that sends us stumbling into the gap between idealised expectation and banal reality. It is also revealing, both as an indicator of the limits to which curator Collier Schorr pushes this intelligent exhibition‚s theme, and of her own artistic instincts and inspirations.

Works by the New Color photographers of the 80s form the backbone of ŒOvernight to Many Cities‚, and those familiar with Schorr‚s recent output will recognise a shared fascination with the theatricality of American suburbia, and with the expression of sexual ambiguity through style, gaze and gesture. Here these preoccupations are interwoven with a subtle exploration of what constitutes a Œtravel picture.‚ One answer might be that it is an image which addresses the relationship between human beings and the landscapes through which they move; their mutual influence and the extent to which one can ever truly Œbelong‚ to the other. Ari Marcopoulos‚s photographs of snowboarders, for example, represent Alpine mountain slopes as playgrounds. Their physical form is unaltered, but our perception of them is coloured by an idea of Œfunction‚ - the very last thing attributable to nature in the raw. In Joel Sternfeld‚s Yellowstone National Park, August 1979, 1979, a herd of tourists gawk across a river at a herd of moose, their alienation comically absolute.

The pairing of another Sternfield, Pendleton, Oregon, June 1980, 1980, with Karlheinz Weinberger‚s Evel Rowdies Camp, Schänis, 1990-2001, juxtaposes two further images of detachment. In the first, the new village of the title appears to have popped up fully formed in the middle of rural nowheresville. In the second, a biker encampment is roped off with conscientious neatness from its unpopulated surroundings. Both suggest communities huddled together for protection, their anxiety about or antipathy towards the outside world manifested in strangely introverted design and behaviour.

Disfarmer‚s portraits of soldiers leaving home for World War II and Larry Burrows‚s filmic shots of the Vietnam battlefield serve as reminders of that old half-joking exhortation to ŒJoin the Army - travel the world, meet new people. And kill them.‚ What does it mean to place Disfarmer‚s John Bullard, Blanche Bailey And Her Son, Dan, from the Herber Springs Portraits, 1939-46 next to the two young punks reclining on garden chairs beneath an orange tree in Joel Sternfeld‚s Studio City, California, July 1982, 1982? It‚s a trip through time which, as we contrast the subjects‚ attitudes and trajectories, brings a renewed strangeness and added poignancy to both, additionally reinforcing the exhibition‚s socio-political subtext. William Gedney achieves an equally powerful face-off within a single image in San Francisco, 1967. The subject is a young festival-goer. While blonde, beaded and androgynous, his folded arms and hard stare nonetheless signal an aggression bubbling unexpectedly close to the surface.

A number of artists in the show seek to re-examine the clichés associated with particular destinations by finding a Œtypical‚ scene, then pulling back to reveal its genuine context. So Pablo Ortiz Monasterio‚s Toreros, Y es Plata Cemento y Risa, Mexico City, 1987, 1987, which depicts two young matadors practising by the side of a busy motorway, suggests, with the simplest of means, the most complex of cultures. Mitch Epstein‚s Humayuns Tomb Gardens, New Delhi, 1983, does something similar, as any lingering expectations of the exotic are defused entirely by the image of two guys and their radio, reclining on the grass and mugging amiably for the camera.

Schorr establishes rewarding dialogue between the seventy or so works in ŒOvernight to Many Cities‚ without recourse to a gimmicky hang. Rather, she establishes a gentle rhythm, dispersing series around the gallery and continually looping back to earlier motifs. Marion Post Wolcott‚s image of accommodation and entertainment thrown together for migratory workers in the 40s has an echo in William Christenberry‚s Building, Hale County, Alabama, 1967-2000, a set of sixteen prints which document the reinvention of abandoned wooden shacks as short-lived, makeshift nightspots. Spanning between them the entire period of time which the ŒOvernight to Many Cities‚ covers, they both also return us to Scheer‚s bloated camper. In all three, travel is imaged as all about the search for primal good times, for an assertion and celebration of self, for an outpost of comfort in the modern wilderness, for home.