Monday, November 5, 2012

Suzanne Opton at the Chrysler Museum

Suzanne Opton has a show at the Chrysler Museum here in Norfolk, VA. The show is Many Wars but also has a couple of images from another concept, Soldier. The main show consists of 19 life-sized 3/4 length portraits of military veterans. The two images from Soldier are representative of that concept - much larger than life size headshots of active duty soldiers, their head lying on a table so the face is presented horizontally.

The images from Soldier are interesting, but extremely ambiguous. I get no sense of what the artist is aiming for here, and suspect that she is hoping that the enormous prints and ruthless detail will say something for her.

The Many Wars collection of portraits of veterans is much more artistically clear. The color palette is deliberately chosen to echo that of certain eras of paintings: rich reddish browns, and so on. The subjects are, with one exception, shot in a life sized 3/4 length portrait, themselves wrapped in a length of upholstery fabric, against a simple hanging fabric background. The one exception is a bit of a puzzle, it is the oldest looking of the bunch, a WWII veteran, who is wrapped in pure white fluffy material and, unlike the other subjects, shows no sign of wearing anything else. Although the print is the same size, the framing is much closer, something like 2 times life sized. Interestingly, this print is hung in the same place the odd-print-out in the Baldwin Lee show was hung. Is this the Chrysler's designated "we don't know what to make ot this one" spot? Perhaps the image represents a connection with the Soldier images, or perhaps the artist simply liked the old guy's look so much she wanted him bigger.

The images are pretty much transparent, in the sense that one doesn't much see the photography. The lighting is straightforward, the colors are muted and pleasant, setting a tone unobtrusively. What one sees is the subjects, these 18 men and 1 woman, each with their own 1000 yard stare. Some confront the camera, posing with clenched fists, others seem mid-conversation, often talking with their hands. Others appear lost in their own world. The overall effect is definitely powerful. These are people who have seen some shit, and done some shit, make no mistake. This comes through with crystal clarity.

There are some problems with the show. Of the nineteen images, 17 are white men, one is an ambiguously non-white guy, and one is a woman. This isn't representative of our veterans, at all. These were shot at a PTSD treatment program in, I think, Vermont, which explains but does not excuse the demographic breakdown. Further, the subjects were all undergoing treatment for PTSD, and many of them have been more or less recently, homeless. This raises the question: Are these photographs of damaged vets, or photographs of homeless people? There's a large overlap between the two populations, but they're not the same. I think the show could have done a better job of addressing the demographic problem, and the issue of homelessness. Had it done so, it would have been much stronger for it.

As it is, the show falls into a grey area between commentary, and outright exploitation of the subjects. As commentary, the show is modestly strong, but falls well short of what it could have been. With the equipment, the subjects, and the extremely coherent and strong visual concept all present, I think the artist could have and should have made a stronger statement here. Instead, she appears to have fallen back into the lazy "we'll print them really big so they look like art" attitude so common today. It would not be unfair to say that Opton has failed her subjects with this show.

Finally, a remarkable piece of serendipity. When I went to look at the show again recently, one of the lights was out. These images are lit with pretty straightforward museum lighting, a spot to illuminate the frame evenly with minimized reflections. With the light out on one of the images, the effect was completely different and quite startling. The transparency was gone, I no longer skipped past the photograph directly to the subject. Now I was confronted with a figure almost lost in the gloom. Reflected in the glass were the two photographs mounted on the wall behind me. After a moment I saw my own reflection, a black silhouette. No longer was this a solitary figure, emotionally naked before me, this was a grouping of figures, one almost lost in darkness, and one of which was me.

It would utterly subvert the artist's intent, I think, to relight the show, but it would be artistically much stronger with tiny spotlights on faces or hands (the hands were often far more expressive than faces). I cannot imagine what the effect of this imagined show would be, as commentary or exposition. Stronger? Weaker? I would have to see it to know.

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