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Funny Pictures

at Ten in One Gallery, through December 20

Keith Carter

at Catherine Edelman Gallery, through December 23

By Fred Camper

The peekaboo, "look at me" quality of Jeff Burton's Untitled (Panda) is echoed in the work of the other nine photographers in "Funny Pictures" as well. Burton snapped four views of a giant inflatable panda from a roadside as the balloon hovered above the treetops, presumably promoting some event but in our view disconnected from any such purpose. The surrounding trees and sky are ironic, as Burton juxtaposes three kinds of nature: the unmodified sky, the perhaps cultivated trees, and the utterly artificial "wild animal" lurking improbably above them. The higher up an observer travels on this food chain, his sequence implies, the less likely one is to encounter anything truly wild.

Nature is even more painfully artificial in Laura Stein's Sylvester Tomato, an actual tomato she grew into a mold of the head of the cartoon cat. Here nature is literally forced to fit "culture." A purplish lavender background provides an intense contrast with the tomato's bright red, recalling the attention-getting colors of classic Hollywood cartoons. Her photograph, like Burton's series of panda images, confronts us with a surprising and humorous object that also makes a comment on image making.

Such moments of surprise--the result of plays on representation--are classic modernist ploys, later adopted by many pomo artists for the sheer fun of it. But here a serious point is made too: that the photographic image--a mechanical imprint of "reality" thought to be invested with a certain objective authority--is itself subject to such play. The highly theatrical manner in which the ten photographers at Ten in One question the objectivity of photographs is another defining quality of postmodernism. Burton's panda and Stein's tomato were made to be looked at; it's almost as if the photograph were an image mounted under a proscenium arch.

These photographers make serious points in their playful and humorous ways, as Burton does about the "wild" animals that lurk in our "forests." Anissa Mack does the same in three witty yet chilling images in which she photographs herself and her mom today in poses taken from family-album photos. Summer 1972 shows the adult Mack drinking from a garden hose; the much smaller photo she's copying is mounted alongside it. In February 3, 1972 Mack lies on the floor facing a bowl of lollipops, some of which she's spread out in front of her. The arrangement and colors of the lollipops almost perfectly match the 1972 photo, and she offers the camera the same girlish look in both.

Amused by the disparity between the adult Mack and the childhood poses she assumes, the viewer also considers the disturbing possibility that these poses--the images of her that her family captured--dominate her present. Feminists have made a similar point about home movies: the images our parents made of us reveal how they saw us, which to some extent determines how we see ourselves. Mack's witty and improbable restagings--however trapped she might be in her past, she's unlikely to make "installations" out of lollipops today--also make clear that the original "candid" shots were themselves events staged for the camera, the child acknowledging the photographer's presence.

Bob Tavani humorously captures the dual identity of postmodern photography--as an imprint of reality and an utterly artificial construct--in I Have Shit Myself, in which the nude photographer crouches on a rug apparently excreting a cutout photo of his smaller, clothed self. But though he invokes a whole passel of jokes--art as shit, and the artist qua performer qua shitter--I also felt a kind of despair underlying them, since all the artist apparently can do is replicate his own image. And if, in the postmodern view, all images are artificial, which version of the self--the large nude Tavani or the smaller cutout--is the real one? Neither is real; the self is no more substantial than feces, just another useless art product. And the color of the rug, which is not far from the muddy hues of the photo cutout or of Tavani's skin, suggests that all culture is shit.

The emptiness that follows on imagery's failure is evoked most movingly by Tim Hailand. In his Untitled (Yes), a swirl of reflective brownish water suggestive of oily mud holds the three letters of "yes," forlornly separate from one another, some turned sideways. Many of the other pictures in the show reveal happy self-assurance, treating lightly any doubts or fears about representation or the way that artists repeat themselves: the panda is like other toys, the woman imitates herself in childhood, the artist "shits" himself. But Hailand's shot lacks any such artistic self-assertion, the letters of our most affirmative word lying sadly askew and isolated, without meaning.

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For the photographers in "Funny Pictures," photography itself is mostly a form of play, a site for speculation about authenticity. They aim to make the viewer do a double take, trying to figure out the relations between the image's various elements. And invariably those relations lead to the kind of hall of mirrors, in which nothing is authentic, that underlies Hailand's "yes" that's really a "no."

But contradictions within a work need not end in such a trap, as Keith Carter's poetic images, 39 of which are now on view at Catherine Edelman, amply demonstrate. A few have a playful humor reminiscent of some of the "funny pictures," but Carter's photographs work toward very different ends. The man in Atlas, for example, hides his face behind a large reflective ball, his playful pose echoing the concealment games of Burton's panda images. But this photo has none of the cartoonish quality of Burton's. Instead one notices its inner complexity: the reflected light in the large ball, and the way the man's stocky form gently echoes the ball's roundness. There's a humor in the image and title, but they're also serious, even respectful: Carter gives this classical figure a nobility none of the subjects in "Funny Pictures" has.

Nevertheless Carter, 49, sometimes seems to share the pomo vision of representation as an arbitrary game. James Joyce shows a young boy holding a white sketch board on which is printed "draw a book / draw a train / draw a boy": a school assignment, perhaps, but also a reference to the arbitrary nature of all images, suddenly materializing on a blank board or on blank photographic paper. Yet Carter's sense of subjects materializing out of nothing or partially concealed is finally not a product of cynicism but of his observation of humans: "People's lives are a lot more fragile than most of us want each other to know, and that region of fragility is what I try to illuminate in my pictures," he told one interviewer. A resident of Beaumont, Texas, for most of his life, Carter says he loves "ordinary people and unsung heroes....I like imperfection....

I'm interested in the poetry of the ordinary."

In his strongest pictures, a very narrow depth of field leaves only a small portion of the image in sharp focus: one has to work to figure out the whole. Soft focus adds mystery and atmosphere and suggests a kind of "spirit" to the scene that cannot be depicted precisely. What Carter doesn't show becomes as important as what he does. Even in the sharp photos, absence is part of his subject--the face of Atlas or the pictures the boy may draw--as Carter enlists his viewer's imagination.

Photos that at first might seem mannered become windows onto reverie. Only two oranges hanging from an overhead branch are in sharp focus in Orange Tree. But here the focus is so sharp (Carter makes his two-and-a-quarter-inch negatives with a Hasselblad) that one can see not only a water droplet at the bottom of an orange but refracted in it the skylight behind. At the center of the image is the fuzzy figure of a large white horse, suggesting a dream rather than an actual animal. If the picture were in focus, the horse framed by mistletoelike orange branches might seem conventional, even kitschy. But by focusing on this arbitrary detail, Carter suggests that meaning can be found anywhere, in the periphery as well as at the center.

In four pictures of Venice Carter combines sharp and soft focus to blot out the canals, palaces, and grand piazza made familiar by painters such as Canaletto even before this century's onslaught of tourist posters. Instead he gives us moments of clarity emerging as if from a fog--a few windows, a few cathedral doorways. The gondola in Gondola is vague, but the buildings on either side of the canal are both fuzzy and sharp; the sharpest object of all is a tree that sprouts from a building roof, its branches arching over the canal. Once again Carter directs attention to a framing device, because part of his enterprise is to make conventional scenes new. But what may seem a redirected emphasis isn't quite: an out-of-focus gondola, like the white horse, is ultimately more evocative because it leaves more to the mind's eye. Carter once remarked that he sometimes shows only the back of his subjects' heads: "That way, they can be anyone. They can be all of us."

Carter's pictures suggest enigmatic, secret dramas. In Bird Cage a boy, a caged bird, and a horse are lined up in profile: the horse appears to be sniffing the bird, and the boy faces them. Only a few, almost random parts of the scene are sharp: the boy's sweater near his shoulder, the bird, some of the horse. This variation in focus is appropriate, for the photo evokes questions no photo could answer. Can horses smell? How do animals sense each other? What thoughts motivate the boy? Carter uses soft focus to create a poetry of uncertainty, to evoke the sides of things that cannot really be shown or known.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "I Have Shit Myself" by Bob Tavani; "February 3, 1972" by Anissa Mack; "Bird Cage" by Keith Carter.

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