The title of this exhibition, "Taking Pictures," has multiple meanings yet remains somewhat misleading. The most common interpretation might be "snapping photographs." But the BCA Center's new show is not explicitly about photography, even if it does contain photos — including a slightly disturbing chromogenic print by the celebrated Cindy Sherman. What's more germane here is "taking" in the sense of appropriating. "Taking Pictures" shows us how that concept emerged in the 1970s, and how prescient it proved to be.
The exhibit presents early or contemporary work, or both, by 11 artists from the so-called Pictures Generation. (The name derives from a seminal 1977 exhibit, titled simply "Pictures," at Artists Space in New York.) One of the artists is University of Vermont associate professor of art Nancy Dwyer, who provides the connection between Burlington in 2015 and New York City in the 1970s and '80s. That's when this group of artists began to make an impact on the art scene, and to express itself by both appropriating and commenting on a growing mass-media culture.
Significantly, the postwar generation was the first to grow up with television, the first to be visually imprinted en masse with the same entertainment, news and advertising imagery. It may be hard for today's youth, who have grown up with smartphones and the internet, to grasp how radical that shift in collective consciousness was.
In addition, the '70s brought a period of disillusionment, as the Vietnam War dragged on and the nation reeled from rapid, often violent societal change. It's no wonder that artists coming of age in the era turned the '60s mantra "Question Authority" into a practice of questioning everything.
Like every generation, this one responded to, reflected and pushed back against the world around it — including the art world. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a 2009 exhibit titled "The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984," put it like this:
Educated in the self-reflexive and critical principles of Minimal and Conceptual art, this tightly knit group of artists brought those lessons to bear on a return to recognizable imagery, exploring how images shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world.
The Met's exhibit, larger than the current one in Burlington, included work by all of those exhibited at BCA: Dwyer and Sherman, Robert Longo, Dara Birnbaum, James Casabere, Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Jack Goldstein, Sarah Charlesworth and Gretchen Bender. The last three are now deceased; the rest are still working artists, and all except Dwyer live in New York. In addition to photography, the works in Burlington include film, video, sculpture, lithographs, wallpaper and more.
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"Mark" by Robert Longo
BCA curator DJ Hellerman suggests that "Taking Pictures" allows us to consider the artists' older work "through the lens of their more current production." This is not a didactic show, however; it does not present "then and now" works by every artist for us to compare side by side. Some viewers may wish for such symmetry as an aide in polishing their art-historical lens. Regardless, it's important to realize that the living artists in this exhibit continue to make art; the Pictures Generation was not calcified by what we now call a "brand."
Dwyer's wallpaper and word-shaped mixed-media sculpture (2012) wryly convey this orientation. Employing the phrase "NOT Dead Yet," writes Hellerman, she poses "a not-so-subtle challenge for us to live forward-looking, engaged lives in spite of possible limitations our pasts can impose upon us."
Dwyer is one of the few artists represented in the show by both newer and older work. The latter is "Cardz" (1980), a series of 26 roughly 6-by-4-inch laminated silkscreens on leatherette paper. To create them, Dwyer appropriated figures from advertising and news images and turned them into line drawings. The resulting minimalist images focus on body language and gestures. By turning them into playing cards, writes Hellerman, Dwyer "humorously hints at the game-like structures of human interaction."
Three pieces by Longo also allow us a look at past, present and the aesthetic trajectory between them. "Mark" and "Gretchen" (1982-83) were originally photographs, which Longo then made as graphite drawings, and then as lithographs. The two figures, from his "Men in the Cities" series, are not meant to be a couple, though they hang side by side at BCA; what links them is their contorted body language. Each is in midreaction to an invisible attack, limbs flailing. Longo enhances the sense of tension by tightly cropping the picture plane. Hellerman asks us in the wall text: "Are there any connections to be made with Longo's 'Untitled (Hell's Gate)' on view in the west gallery?"
The answer is yes, and the connections are explosion and mystery. That 44-by-42-inch digital pigment print (2005), created as part of Longo's "Monsters" series, depicts an enormous ocean wave. Hell's Gate is a popular surfing location in Australia, but this wave has tsunami strength. The stark black-and-white image captures terrifying force at the edge of release — a power beyond control. Metaphorize that as you will.
A pair of matching mixed-media works by Lawler may at first glance look like works by Andy Warhol, or an appropriation thereof. It's a neat trick that neither assumption is exactly true. Lawler is known for her behind-the-scenes photographs of the "lives" of artworks. In 1988 she shot Warhol's 1962 painting "Round Marilyn" as it was up for auction at Christie's — the auction label is attached. Lawler places two identical photographs side by side and titles them, respectively, "Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry?" and "Does Marilyn Monroe Make You Cry?"
While we're wondering about our answers to those questions, Hellerman, in wall text, poses further ones about the fetishization of both Warhol and Monroe. Moreover, he asks, "Is it right for a male artist to profit from the sexualization and cachet of a specific female body? And what happens when a female artist continues to profit from this woman's fame and standing?"
Lawler would have us consider the essence of reality in her 2011-14 "tracings." Printed on vinyl that's adhered directly to the wall, these images reduce some of her own photographs to line drawings empty of nuance. Lawler "questions how far removed from actual experience her work can get while still maintaining the perception of an authentic experience of the artwork," writes Hellerman. This conceptual rabbit hole might be provocative to some, but the works' arid aesthetic might not inspire such contemplation.
McCollum's "Plaster Surrogates" (1982) are also reductive, yet oddly humorous. An arrangement of faux artworks pokes at the idea that art is simply something to hang on the wall. McCollum also contrasts reproduction and repetition with originality and individuation. He and assistants first created the standard, molded-plaster pieces and then hand-painted them. The frames are white; the rectangles where the "art" would be are solid black.
Beware, "Taking Pictures" presents so many conceptual layers that a viewer may feel as bombarded as a Robert Longo figure. For respite and sheer entertainment, don't miss the video works in the second-floor gallery. Flash back to "Wonder Woman" (Birnbaum, 1978-79) and forward to grown women wearing Kigurumi masks and dancing to ring tones (Simmons, 2014). For realz.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Generation Meta"