BY Chris Balaschak in Reviews | 16 JAN 06
Featured in
Issue 96

Walead Beshty

BY Chris Balaschak in Reviews | 16 JAN 06

Hung on a portion of wall, just above the front desk and gallery office detritus, a small drawing served as the coda to Walead Beshty’s recent exhibition. It was a black ink on vellum tracing of a photograph with its accompanying caption, rendered as if reproduced directly from a mass-market paperback. The title explains its subject, Erich von Däniken, Gods from Outerspace, p.125, Bantam Books, 1970 (2005). Däniken, the self-proclaimed ‘father of the ancient astronaut theory’, is shown standing before a Mayan ruin, pursuing a history unknown to sceptics. Like Däniken, Beshty is a revisionist, and his exhibition of new works served as an annotated and self-amended history of photography.

Beshty took over China Art Objects’ galleries, transforming the seemingly cramped quarters into distinct halls of presentation. Through each of the rooms he displayed a penchant for understanding and subverting the generic functions of photography, then doubling or folding these back on themselves.

The first room, the South Gallery, contained three large black and white stereographs. These were not the small 19th-century paired prints mounted on cardboard one normally thinks of, whose illusion of three-dimensionality is achieved using a hand-held stereoptical viewer; they were too substantial and dimly exposed. Instead dual images, printed on a single sheet, offer doubled depictions of various examples of revamped architecture. Among the three was The Excursionist Views (Oriental Gardens 1971, rebuilt 1983–, after Paul Randolph) (2001–5). Through powers of two, Beshty’s digitally darkened view of a failed modular mass-housing project sought the historicizing action of photography’s frame.

The North Gallery contained a strikingly different setting. Seven vertical colour photographs hung like large scrolls pressed into confined quarters. The most revealing of the series was Island Fauna #4 (Purgatories, Rte. 110 and Rte. 10 Interchange) (2005). The photograph showed an overlooked scrap of landscape disowned by surging Los Angeles freeways, a seemingly mundane patch of overgrown turf, cluttered and unkempt. While each of the seven works cropped the landscape quite closely, #4 cleverly collected a segment of concrete in the bottom right corner. The photo depicted an overgrown ruin of ignored but nevertheless officially mandated greenery. The seven works read like out-takes from Thomas Struth’s overwrought ‘Paradise’ series, maybe hinting at the latter’s dubious, perhaps staged, atmosphere, Paradise as much a privileged view as an impossible one.

In an upper office Beshty installed a group of perplexing black and white photographs, clever if somewhat vague referents to his particular ideas regarding the history of photography. Here he acted out, in facsimile, the guises of the medium, imitating the historically typical aspects of photography as a tool for portraiture, architectural documentation and archival recording. The self-portraits were framed in groups. Each image depicted Beshty in garb, masquerading as The Skeptic, The Architect, & The Critic (2005), and The Critic, Double (2005). Seen with eyes shut, eyelids painted over with images of eyes – Cocteau-style – Beshty gave his surrogates a deceptive, fictional gaze. In total, four of these portrait combinations were arranged around Beshty’s Personal Affects, Villa Savoye (After Le Corbusier, 1928–31) (2005) and The Ennis–Brown House, 1924 (Ornamental Detail of South Face, after Frank Lloyd Wright) (2005). The former provided a seamless backdrop to the photographer’s studio. In the latter Beshty invoked the historical, specifically the photographer Edmund Teske, who arrived in Los Angeles in the 1940s to document Wright’s architecture.

Beshty’s new work is more rigorous and significantly less ironic than before. Focusing on the deteriorated and declined, his interest is in an entropic history of photography: a re-written chronology created with a revisionist agenda. In depicting generic roles, Beshty is concerned with the artists and editors that have shaped history through cropping and reproduction. Taking Sherrie Levine’s series ‘After Walker Evans’ (1981) as the work's antecedent, Beshty inserts himself into the historical flow. Unlike Levine, he deploys photography’s fundamental virtue as a recording tool to exaggerate its illusory possibilities – a revised version of reality, and one that tends toward fictitious consequence.