First impressions: the black-and-white photographs creep evenly along the walls, most of them just a little below eye level. The frames are dark, and the slightly beveled edge of the white matte board that surrounds each photograph is absolutely perfect -- absolutely professional. A modern, conservative installation, which is probably as it should be for a set of mainly modern, and yes, mainly conservative, photographs.
The exhibit description for Signs: Wordplay in Photography, co-sponsored by the Sack Photographic Trust and the de Young Museum, states that the intent of the exhibit is to explore "the myriad uses of signs in the work of 20th- and 21st-century photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander and Ed Ruscha, "but representatives of the 21st-century are largely missing. While aesthetically I don't find this a negative, intellectually it's definitely disappointing.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the delicacy of the prints -- apparently I've become over-habituated to the assertive nature of large-scale, contemporary color photographic installations. Too used to the experience of the work approaching me. If nothing else, the prints here are masterful: they foreground visual tactility in a way that brings to mind the 17th-century idea that eyes are not just associated with sight, but touch. Since the subject is signs, there is a tendency towards images of peeling wheat-pasted posters contrasted against brick, wood and concrete, or just on their own. Andy Warhol's "Showbills" (1983) is the best example of this: the showbills sag, balloon and crease like old skin.
Most of the works in Signs date from the 1920s through the 1960s. It's a small show -- only one room -- and Evans and Ruscha feature heavily, along with a couple prints by Friedlander and a few by San Francisco photographer, John Gutmann. Based on the exhibit title, my hope was that the exhibit would be more liberal in its concept of "wordplay," as well as broader in its material scope, but as someone who is always interested in what happens when image and text get together, I guess I just got overexcited and skipped the fine print.
The trope here is signage as texture -- and the fineness of its weave into our everyday lives. In other words, the photographers here focus on the visual language of things like advertising and graffiti and how they inhabit the space of the human. Some highlight the humor (boys running in one direction while the billboard behind them features boys running the opposite), others the threat of accumulation (Friedlander's "New York City," 1974) and social commentary (Richard Nagler's "I Assume You Drink Martell," 1983).
Nothing really new or surprising, but the show did leave me curious. Most of the work collapses the space between me and my surroundings -- er, the human and the landscape of advertising -- until what is background and what is foreground gets a little muddy (a good example of this being Gutmann's "War Propaganda Paintings, China," 1944-5, which features several Chinese laborers with their backs to us, staring at the painted image of a tank over which another sign has been pasted). In this respect, the later works by Ruscha and Warhol stand out due to the way they focus on signs (or showbills, in Warhol's case) as objects with their own significance. I wish that the curators of the show had played around with this trajectory and included some more contemporary descendents of this line of questioning... although the giant Ruscha triptych "Heaven," (1988) which can be found around the corner from the exhibit, is a certainly a sign of its own sort.
Signs: Wordplay in Photography runs through June 14, 2009 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.