Abandoned Sets

In May 2011, Court Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn was subject to a curious transformation. The sudden appearance of vintage cabs and signs, an old-style subway station misleadingly labeled “Elmhurst Ave.,” and a newsstand stocked with papers from an earlier era—specifically, 1969—appeared to herald a trip back in time. The true origin of these startling alterations was, of course, a movie shoot, specifically for upcoming blockbuster Men in Black 3 (2012). The situation was thus of a kind more familiar to New Yorkers than perhaps anyone else in the world—between 2009 to 2010, a total of 279 movies and 345 television projects were filmed in the City—but still it had its confounding elements. Foremost among these was the fact that, as reported by The New York Times following MiB 3’s release, the entire motorbike chase scene filmed on the restyled street ended up on the cutting room floor. Unseen by cinema audiences, a carefully contrived fiction had thus shaded into something like fact. Where in all this was myth, and where reality?

“Reality,” as Timothy Leary once said, “is the only word in the language that should always be used in quotes.” This is probably not the place to embark on a philosophical investigation of all that we think we understand by that troublesome term, but Dr. Leary makes a crucial point: Reality is inherently mutable and always dependent on a context that we provide. In this sense, it is hardly the opposite of myth, but its inseparable partner, its flipside, even its equivalent. The incident on Court Street reminds us that we are surrounded by layer on layer of contrivance, by a Matrix-like shared territory—the “Desert of the ‘Real’”—in which the boundary between actuality and illusion has never been less than entirely porous. In “Myths & Realities,” co-curators Kathy Ryan and Scott Thode have assembled a set of photographic narratives that, while idiosyncratic and highly diverse, also reflect a communal drive toward alternative ways of describing, exploring, or deconstructing the innate strangeness of the everyday.

This involves some of the artists in “Myths & Realities,” all of whom are alumni of the School of Visual Arts, in a conscious shifting, altering or twisting of reality, others in a heightened realism through which images may ultimately transcend their times and places of origin. “They make careful decisions about just how far to go with their playfulness,” says Ryan of the group’s 16 members, “and with their reinvention of the real.” The work of Kevin Cooley in particular displays an obvious kinship with the endeavors of the MiB 3 crew. In his lush color shots recording the environs of movie sets, Cooley documents Hollywood’s own particular mythmaking technique. Taken at night, these atmospheric images are suffused in an artificial radiance that lends their otherwise banal subjects an eerie, supernatural feel. When, for example, a well-known SoHo pizza joint is shown incongruously spotlit, our understanding of the site is profoundly destabilized. Are we looking at an image of a model, a digital simulation, even a painting? Or was the place itself, like that mocked-up subway station, never fully real to begin with?

Cinema is a critical touchstone for other artists in the exhibition too. Sean Hemmerle, Matthew Pillsbury, and Dinh Q. Lê all make explicit reference to the language of film in explorations of the ways in which mythic iconography is embedded in popular imagery. Hemmerle’s photographs of American Rust Belt towns such as Detroit, Braddock, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Albany seem at first to stand in stark contrast to his depiction of sleek, hi-tech newsrooms in his series Media Nodes. Yet both sets of work draw on the kind of visual staging that characterizes big-budget narrative filmmaking. The real-world origins of these images are clear, but it is easy nonetheless to begin reading the pictured sites as the settings not only for dramatic action, but also for the creation or dissolution of myth. If the Rust Belt is where, in recent years, the American Dream has gone to die, newsrooms are where it is not only autopsied but (sometimes desperately) shored up. And in a shot of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hemmerle portrays a group of individuals who have become something akin to movie stars—the loci of constant discussion but ultimately inseparable from their rarefied status.

In his elegant black-and-white photographs, Matthew Pillsbury uses extended exposures (sometimes as long as a feature film) to encourage us to observe the world afresh—and, ironically, in the spirit of an old movie—by revealing extraordinary details hidden in plain sight. In the series Screen Lives, the figures of apartment-dwellers become translucent blurs of motion surrounding the static, bright-white screens of television and computer monitors. And in City Stages and Museum Hours, the scene shifts from private to public as the artist focuses on iconic locations from the Park Avenue Armory to the Museum of Natural History, framing them as the often-grandiose settings for eight million anonymous stories. Pillsbury—like Hemmerle—exhibits a fascination with architecture, exploring the psychic resonance of built spaces and suggesting that their users leave a psychic trace (another definition of myth?) that endures beyond their physical presence.

Dinh Q. Lê’s primary subject is the influence of cinema on our comprehension of a specific, much-mythologized historical event: the Vietnam War. For many, perhaps the majority of Americans, films such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket constitute a body of pseudo-knowledge, a fictionalized impression of the conflict’s origins, sequence and fallout. Lê’s video South China Sea Pishkun, 2009, shows departing American forces dumping helicopters into the ocean to prevent their technology from falling into enemy hands. Filtering this real event through the medium of animation, the artist subjects the episode to yet another round of reinterpretation, suggesting that the episode is perhaps too traumatic, even now, to observe in the raw, or that reality itself has decayed under the consistent pressure of more palatable or entertaining accounts.

Lê was born in Vietnam but lives in the US, and makes art that reflects the two countries’ troubled relationship. Other artists in “Myths and Realities” prefer to probe the state of the union by looking directly inward, alluding to emblematically American landscapes, lifestyles and histories. In her series My Pie Town, Debbie Grossman has remade a set of photographs originally produced by Russell Lee for the United States Farm Security Administration in 1940. Using Photoshop to modify high-resolution versions of the originals available from the Library of Congress, the artist has created a world inhabited exclusively by women, an alternate fantasy realm shaped from documented reality. A rural American milieu also appears in the photographs of Justine Kurland, who employs it as the backdrop for edenic scenes featuring naked women and children (her young son Caspar among them). Both artists’ projects worry at the maleness of ‘Americana,’ hinting that myths need not be fixed but can and should be reshaped and added to according to contemporary perspectives.

Ideas around landscape, whether rural or urban, as the environment in which foundational narratives are played out is also central to the photography of Brendan Austin, Domingo Milella, Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, Vera Lutter and Simen Johan. In his series Paper Mountains, Austin uses painted crumpled paper to simulate epic crags and cliffs, a simple but convincing illusion that allows him to meditate on our perception of the vastness of nature without once leaving his studio. Milella’s panoramic views of chaotic suburban sprawl in Mexico, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere direct our gaze toward those liminal zones where showcase architecture is displaced by more makeshift forms of construction, while Lutter uses a camera obscura to make large-scale images of industrial sites such as shipyards, airports and factories, emphasizing their austere, often fading grandeur. Liao uses digital manipulation to arrive at ‘perfect’ versions of his metropolitan subjects, ones that exist only in the combination of multiple views and moments, and Johan does something similar in his series Until the Kingdom Comes by inserting images of animals taken at zoos and museums into outdoor environments photographed elsewhere. The uncanny results are a collage of separate existences in which everything is ‘real,’ yet nothing is.

Where these artists typically survey shared places, events and stories, others concentrate on the minutiae of individual lives, bestowing a curious strain of heroism on its subjects while simultaneously trading on their status as everymen. In Noah Kalina’s hypnotic Everyday, 2000–, a viral video hit that has spawned countless imitations, the artist tracks his own gradually shifting appearance over a period that now exceeds 10 years. We watch as haircuts blossom and wither, clothes and backdrops flicker past, and the passage of time begins to leave its indelible mark. In his dreamlike shots of birth, Mark Kessel captures a moment repeated many times every day while also rendering it ‘historical’ through the use of an antique method. Kessel, who trained as a physician, uses daguerreotype printing in order to emphasize the uniqueness of individual identity while reflecting on the continuity of the human species.

The remaining artists in “Myths and Realities,” Ina Jang, Aïda Ruilova and Collier Schorr, exploit a variety of formal devices to shake up our instinctive expectations of linear narratives and definitive versions. In her video work, Ruilova employs an angular, lo-fi aesthetic redolent of B-movies and experimental music to explore extreme psychological states, while Schorr’s awkwardly sensual portraits of adolescent men and women stir subtle elements of fantasy into naturalistic portraiture. Finally, Jang uses paper cutouts to ‘edit’ her images of figures, part-deconstructing the coded language of fashion. As these projects and the exhibition as a whole demonstrate, the medium of photography is uniquely suited to an examination of the permeable boundary between fact and fiction, the documentary and the invented. All the show’s artists exploit their medium’s lingering power to deceive, presenting what appear at first glance—if only fleetingly—to be slices of objectivity that proceed to reveal themselves as rather more problematic. What our looking uncovers is not exactly a kernel of truth, but rather the conclusion that any given image necessarily contains myth and reality intertwined—a movie and its abandoned set.

—Michael Wilson