BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 29 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

The Thing Itself

Abbt Projects

BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 29 MAY 12

The Thing Itself, 2012, Installation view

One of the most notable trends over the past decade has been the application of painting’s and sculpture’s methods to photography. See the inevitable C-type prints crumpled on gallery floors or curling off museum walls like petite paper versions of John Chamberlain’s car parts. See all the images, printed on paper or canvas, simulating the properties of mid-century painting, from gestural Ab-Ex theatrics to sober monochromes. Yet that’s what made this show at ABBT PROJECTS so appealing. Curated by the Basel-based, British artist Clare Kenny, the exhibition took the exact opposite tack by applying photographic ideas to painting and sculpture.

The show’s title The Thing Itself is gleaned from The Photographer‘s Eye (1966), John Szarkowski’s classic treatise on the visual language of photography. His text lists five characteristics imbuing the perfect photograph: ‘The Thing Itself’, with its index or presence of reality, is number one (‘The Detail’, ‘The Frame’, ‘The Vantage Point’ and ‘Time’ follow).

Accordingly, Kenny conceived this show – with works by five Switzerland-based artists, including herself – as the first of five exhibitions which will investigate each entry on Szarkowski’s list in turn.

Here, the first investigation limned the subtle transformation of materials in the works on view, which were mostly crafted from ready-made products – or the things themselves. In keeping with Szarkowski’s indexical reality, each work is necessarily self-conscious: just as his photographs ‘represented’ the objects they inscribed and presented their ‘essence’, the works assembled here ‘represented’ the very materials and art-historical forms they ostensibly inhabited. Vanessa Safavi’s three gorgeous untitled collages (all 2011) – each figured on a shiny ground of copper, silver or gold sheeting – conjure an able marriage of 20th-century Spanish or Swiss abstraction (like Martín Chirino or Jean Arp) to American post-Minimalists (like Eva Hesse). The reflective grounds feature constellations of slim lengths of bamboo, jute fibre and swatches of leather in irregular, organic forms. Safavi’s works are inspired by Heraclitus’s writings on the unity of contrary properties, yet those abstract properties here manifest as organic/non-organic materials arranged in self-consciously pleasing, anachronistic compositions.

Hagar Schmidhalter, Archaeologia Mundi (40,55,82,108,133,135), 2011

Valentina Stieger’s works also deftly pull on art history’s string: the history of the trompe l’oeil and the avant-garde. Wooden sticks are clad in cork-, marble- or holographic-printed foils and then leaned casually against the gallery wall. Taken together, the quotidian wood, wallpaper foil and gallery wall conjure a referential spectrum: 1960s-era prop pieces, Swiss walking sticks, André Cadere. Like Safavi’s works, they combine materials that reflect light with materials that absorb it, deftly evoking a kind of photographic surface. That surface becomes most explicit in Hagar Schmidhalter’s sensitive, disarming works, which often start as images torn from the pages of magazines and then are veiled by paint or highlighted by glass. In Archaeologia Mundi (40,55,82,108,133,135) (2011), two glass panes lean against a table base set on its side on the floor and cut sharp, geometric angles in the air – the traditional photographic frame undone. The glass panes sandwich small, artful collages which seemed to be crafted from a book on ancient Rome (an echo of Safavi’s classicism). Nearby, three framed petite works feature oil paint covering and occluding their magazine-page grounds, becoming near monochromes.

Kenny, the artist-curator behind the show, presented works describing her disparate practice and the impulse to elevate seemingly cheap, profane materials that girds her oeuvre so far. In the gallery’s vitrine-like windows, remarkable plaster objects in soft, pastel colours (tinted concrete cast in cake forms and rubbish bins) are stacked like Brâncus¸i pedestals. Above, a wrinkly roll of plastic sheeting sprayed in neon colours was suspended like a scroll, evoking the bright, graphic abstract photography of today. And just like that, photography’s shadow fell across the exhibition of mostly non-photographic works, even as the medium’s theoretical past inspired it. As such, the show confirms photography’s exacting, excessive influence on art production today: even where photography is not, it is.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).