© Richard Misrach
It had to happen sometime, nobody is perfect. And so the National Gallery which has stunned me with back to back photo exhibitions of Foto Modernity in Central Europe, the Art of the American Snapshot, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, follows up this impressive trilogy with the very contrived and pedestrian “On the Beach” photographs by Richard Misrach meant to show the lingering terror and malaise in a post 9/11 society. The photographs themselves are beautiful large format large scale 10×6 ft; 10×8 ft photographs of people on a Hawaiian beach taken from Mr. Misrach’s hotel room where he returned year after year to pursue this series (I’m totally hip to not suffering for your art – I myself like a good road trip to Kissimmee when the weather gets blustery in the mid-Atlantic).
But the work itself leaves me cold. In part because of the willingness of the docent giving the tour to swallow Mr. Misrach’s statement, hook line and sinker “The people on the beach covering themselves in towels are they not akin to someone wearing a straight-jacket?” Of course! Abu Ghraib! How sublime! “The people in the ocean, alone, isolated [sometimes thanks to the prudent use of the photoshop erase feature] are they not showing fear? angst?” Right! Just like we all did when our skies filled with supersonic bombers in the days following 9/11. I tried to sell the well-healed docent some property in Iowa City (she collects Misrach too!), there is plenty of water there in which to isolate yourself, and is not the rising water like the wrath of the terrorist networks?? Perhaps she did not fall for my spin as I, unlike Mr. Misrach, did not arrive “all California surfer in jeans and a t-shirt.” Apparently this really impressed her as well. First impressions, and all that.
Taking me completely by surprise is a review by the WAPosts Blake Gopnik that was very simpatico with my feelings. This is a first! You can read it here.
The work is beautiful. Like a postcard from the beach or a Thomas Kinkade beach scene. The only one that interested me slightly was a picture showing a large group of people on the beach and thanks to the 8×10 negative and the large print you could really examine the details of everyone on the beach. He’s reading the Home Section! She uses Tropicana spf 8! But it’s just like solving a jigsaw puzzle and admiring your work. It’s sort of the mindless suck of the large-format, large-scale photograph.
Full disclosure: I am lamenting the lack of interest in what I call moments in well-known contemporary photography. The waiting for the unscripted that captured within a rectangle resonates in the viewer as a moment of captured history, mundane or not. It seems to me that a lot of tastemakers do not care one whit for this, but prefers static landscapes sexied up under the nomer of new topographics. This is my bias. I like this stuff too, just not so much all the time.
It’s as if the steady stream of imagery as inured us to all but the simplest tableaux, the chaos of the un-orchestrated natural moment gets left behind as our 10 second attention spans fail to grasp it as a cohesive whole. The other thing I take umbrage with is this appropriation of the hot button topics of the day (and I do not mean to diminish their importance by the usage of the term hot button) into art work that bears not even the slightest tangential relationship. I think you can guess how I feel about work derived from taking candy from a baby and then slugged with sexy headlines of the day. I completely appreciate being inspired from our modern malaise and how that can translate into image making – there are many degrees to this-
The fact remains that “On the Beach” is no Guernica.