Six Ways to Fondle an Elephant
New German Photography at the Richard Levy Gallery
By Steven Robert Allen
World War II ended more than 60 years ago, long before most of us were even born, yet the big mama of global industrialized conflicts still colors our ideas about Germans. An exhibit of recent German photography is currently running at the Richard Levy Gallery Downtown. Appropriately titled New German Photography, you would expect this show to have at least some bearing on the national personality, both actual and perceived, of the German people. It doesn't disappoint.
The exhibit includes several pieces from Thomas Ruff's Maschinen series that incorporate black and white images of vintage industrial machinery from the '30s and '40s. These beautiful yet eerie pieces seem to subconsciously play with our crassest stereotypes about German interests and obsessions, celebrating the sort of industrial paraphernalia that we most closely associate with Nazism and militancy.
Ruff's images, however, are carefully manipulated constructs, and it's this aspect of these photographs—their open embrace of artificiality—that binds much of the work in this show together. Oliver Boberg, for example, constructs architectural models, photographing them from predetermined perspectives. You have to look closely at his "Garteneingang" ("Garden Entrance") to recognize that the quaint image of a door leading off a sidewalk depicts an utterly manufactured space.
Likewise, Thomas Demand, who was trained as a sculptor, creates life-size models of mundane objects as the subjects of his photographs. His "Detail" has the pleasantly concocted aesthetic of a PBS kids' program. The bottles and containers on a table stacked with files possess proportions that are just slightly screwy. And it takes a second look to notice that the orange-handled scissors are a cardboard simulacrum.
In a similar vein, Beate Gütshow composes scenes digitally by assembling separate landscape elements into brand new landscapes that couldn't possibly exist in the real world. At first glance, her "LS #14" looks normal enough, a green sloping hill at the right edge of the image, a lush flat field extending toward a line of trees in the distance, a hazy, luminous sky covering it all. Something ain't right, though. The light weaving through the trees on the hill is off somehow. The entire scene is seamless, but the reassembly still looks awkward, impossible.
Then again, no work in this show plays with our visual perception more cleverly than Barbara Probst's "Exposure #16, N.Y.C, 2:49, W. 34th St." The left half of this diptych captures a slim pair of legs extending from a bright orange dress viewed up close from below. The right half exhibits a black and white image of a black and white checked floor viewed from a distance from above. In the background are a pair of female legs. The legs in each half are the same legs, photographed at the exact same moment from two different cameras.
In this and other pieces in the show, these German photographers subvert the naïve notion that the camera is a flawless documentary tool. Varying interpretations of reality are largely a matter of perspective, and the number of conceivable perspectives is always infinite.
Remember the parable about the blind men and the elephant? Because each man felt a different attribute of the animal, each had an utterly different concept of what an elephant is. The same goes for this show. Through the lenses of some of the finest contemporary German photographers, you might think you're getting some inkling of what it means to be German.
It's a trunk, right? Or is it a tail? Maybe an ear?
New German Photography runs through Feb. 17 at the Richard Levy Gallery (514 Central SW). 766-9888.
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