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Monday, August 15, 2016

Criticism: Two Photo Essays

This is me really warming up here, preparing to tackle Sally Mann's What Remains, which I've been living with for a few weeks. Note that I will use the word "surreal" here and there, and I mean it in the colloquial sense. It's a term of art, and I am almost certainly using it catastrophically wrong on those terms, but as colloquial usage I think I am OK.

The rationales for criticism are many, but the one I like best is that criticism at its best completes the Art, or at any rate provides a next step in the conversation. There are really three things you can do when you're confronted with some Art. You can do nothing. You can make a piece of Art in response. You can execute the act of criticism to one degree or another. The latter two kind of blur together, both represent engagement with the Art, and responding publicly to it. The difference is, perhaps, that criticism judges and a artistic response does not. Arguably if I make a photograph in reply to yours, and my photograph makes it clear that I think yours is shit, that's criticism. If it's just what I see as the next photograph to make, in response to yours, it's not.

Anyways. A recent commenter wished out loud there was more thoughtful criticism out there, and following a link or two I found Karel Kravik's work. In hour later I found myself, more or less at random, looking at a personal project from Clara Giaminardi. There are, it happens, certain slight similarities, so I'm going to talk about the two. The dreaded "compare and contrast" some of us may recall from high school essays.

(warning: naked people)

Here's Kravik's work: Blood Unquiet.
Here's Giaminardi's work: Manifesto for a New Objectification

Both sets of pictures lean heavily on one sort of surrrealism or another, although they look nothing alike. It took me a while to see why Kravik's photos feel surreal, since upon inspection they turn out to be, generally, pretty much realistic scenes with one of more children. The first part, as I see it, is that Kravik has a nearly remarkable eye for selecting the surreal in the ordinary, juxtaposing elements in these interesting ways. The second part is the use of tone. Whether through dodging or merely careful use of light, Kravik manages to hit the Giacomelli's note in the the latter's picture from Scanno, Italy. The heavily dodged boy in Giacomelli's picture gives a dreamlike quality, which we see all over again (albeit more subtly) in Kravik's work.

My reading of "Blood Unquiet" was as some sort of dreamlike, surrealist allegory or fable of childhood. Which turns out to be pretty much what the artist intended, substituting "memory" for "dream" (and the two overlap a lot, so I don't see that as important).

Giaminardi's work partakes of an entirely different thread of surrealism. Weirdly contorted bodies, bizarre outfits, mud smeared on the models, and so on. It too is a surrealism built directly out of what is in front of the camera, without any sort of compositing, painting, etc. Her pictures feel more "constructed" than Kravik's, but I think that may be a false sensation. Kravik is simply constructing more naturalistic scenes, and finding the surreal in them, while Giaminardi is more directly constructing surreal scenes.

To Giaminardi's credit she can manage color. Her experience in fashion shows, clearly. These things are very much fashion-inspired, the color palettes are very much in the way of a fashion shoot. Very consistent, very well-defined, quite beautiful. Other contemporary fashion tropes turn up, the "ugly" wall that appears behind the models, the bizarre outfits often have a fashion flavor, as do many of the poses.

The trouble is that without Giaminardi's artist's statement, it just looks like a particularly outré fashion house's latest shoot, except where are the clothes? The messaging, from the point of view of a fashion consumer, is unclear. What do these people make? Who wants to buy it, porn stars? Is the lifestyle Hip? Sumptuous? Young? Sophisticated? Nothing really "reads" from a fashion perspective, it's just the usual tropes except with weird poses and more tits than usual.

With Giaminardi's statement the situation gets much worse. She pretends to be re-imagining something or other, erasing gender inequalities, erasing the distinction between body and mind, by reducing all to flesh. She seems, although digging through the International Art English is always a chore, to be claiming that the road to gender equality is to objectify everyone equally. This strikes the present critic as a device for rationalizing a bunch of second-year art student horseshit as some sort of brave Feminist Statement.

Basically what we're looking at a bunch of naked people, beautifully styled, wrapped in plastic and mud (and.. moss?), posing hopefully. It's a bit prurient, although in this modern era of Internet Porn it's barely titillating. It's certainly puerile. And the attempt to wrap it in the flag of feminism is not only crap, it actually makes the total project considerably worse. Now it's not merely softcore porn, it's softcore porn someone is lamely trying to pass off as High Art and Intelligent Political Commentary.

Paradoxically, each individual picture is pretty good. They're vaguely interesting, they're exceedingly well executed, and occasionally one even gets a frisson of something about gender here (but then, fashion is all about that frisson these days, there are entire campaigns and clothing lines built around gender ambiguity today). These are attractive people, although not always traditionally, often arranged appealingly or at least interestingly. These pictures could each be part of something good, or at least part of something that makes sense. It happens that, as of now, they are not.

Kravik, on the other hand, aims lower and hits his mark well. He's not pretending to make some mighty political statement, he's making smaller but completely genuine statements, and doing so very well indeed. I have not seen this sort of work before. Some of the influences seem pretty clear to me, but there's nothing that feels like a copy of something that came before. The techniques in play are subtle and strong.

I feel that Kravik's project could have usefully lost one or two pictures, or gained a couple. There are a couple (one? two?) pictures which feel a little weak, and if this had been my project (I wish!) I'd either have trimmed it, or filled in a few more "weaker" pictures to build an ebb and flow of pacing. The "weaker" ones are really just the ones that hit the high contrast/surreal notes less powerfully, and in a portfolio dominated by the other sort they feel slightly out of place. Still, perhaps they were necessary to fill out the artist's vision, and the result is superb as-is.

I also wish the gallery-show photos got peeled out and moved somewhere else. It's a bit jarring to run into them at the end of this really marvelous meditation on childhood memory.

Overall, I am pretty excited by Kravik's work. It is genuinely new (to me) and good. Not only is it good but I like it. A twofer.

Giaminardi's work is pedestrian, tedious, and uninteresting, although it is very well executed. It is not good, and I dislike it on the grounds of its superficiality.


  1. This double review seems a bit gratuitous to me, however much I enjoy your writing. Now if you'd compared Kravik to, say, Julie Blackmon's 'Homegrown' (http://www.photoeye.com/gallery/forms2/index.cfm?image=1&id=187064&imagePosition=1&Door=1&Portfolio=Portfolio10&Gallery=1&Page=) ...

  2. Hi ericke ans Andrew.
    At first I was at a slight loss to see the correlation between the two.
    Slight similarities as said in the main post.

    However, I adjusted my thinking to accept that thereview isn't necessarily a comparison between styles etc. Rather, it is comparison of 'Projects'.
    Does the project work? Is it valid? Cohesive? etc.
    In this regard I thing that the double review actually works.
    It is at heart comparing the success of two projects, in and of themselves.

    1. That isn't necessarily how I would have described it before but it's definitely how I'll describe it in future!

      In reality I came across the two projects in the same morning, reacted strongly to both, and decided to write about them. I certainly did intend to examine and judge the projects as a whole, though.

      Picture by picture they're both excellent, but those are the trees. The forests are quite another thing.