The notes from my trip to SF Camerawork last Saturday begin like this: "I'm into the Tom Petty that the desk staff is playing, but not so into Jim Stone." Stone is one of two James D. Phelan Award winners given to California-born photographers in recognition of artistic achievement. I'm hoping I don't have to explain Tom Petty.
According to the exhibition text, Stone's oversize portraits of individual Walmart greeters and restaurant owners are meant to elucidate "facets of America's unusual and complex character," and showcase themes of "damage, misdirection, isolation and failure." In reality, they come across as mediocre genre works that do little to flag the attention of your post-John Waters narrator.
Cue Gainsbourg's Bonnie and Clyde and cut to the panoramic photographs of Doris Jew Conrath, another Phelan award winner. Conrath has a penchant for photographing the orphan children of strip mall development: espresso drive-throughs and their ilk. At first glance the images are as easy to walk by as their real-world counterparts, until you realize that Conrath has photographed the buildings from a variety of perspectives (front, back, side, etc) and then restitched the images. In the process she subverts your sense of comfort, creating buildings that appear real despite their impossible lighting scenarios and strangely mirrored figures.
The second exhibit, Leaving a Mark, get its title from the new issue of Cutter Photozine, a local publication whose aesthetic brings to mind the label protopunk, although that may be because at this point the soundtrack had switched to the Velvet Underground. Cutter features black and white, documentary photographs culled from an open submissions process, and while the individual artistic voices tend to bleed together, the editors use this to their full advantage, creating what amounts to a coherent and energetic artist's book. In this issue, the marks are physical and psychological, silly and serious: everything from scars and shadows to tattoos and glued-on moustaches
My biggest complaint is that the installation of the show isn't nearly as sensititive as the layout of the zine itself. A handful of the photographs have been enlarged and hung, but without attention to the benefits that the original zine format affords: the opposition of specific images, or the pacing of its pages. In the center of the exhibit is a pillar where the bulk of the photographs have been tacked up as 8 x 10s, as well as a couch and coffee table where you can find copies of Cutter. While I can understand the desire to stick with an informal aesthetic, and some of the photographs are moving on their own, for the most part whatever Cutter offers in zine form that sets it apart from an undergrad photo course gets lost in this translation.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for the last exhibit -- the Ersatz Group Exhibition. It's a fun series of ideas for an exhibit, particularly in our participatory culture: put out an open call for mail art and invite an honest-to-gosh mail carrier with some burly UPS tattoos to curate for you; promise your participants that you will publish a book of the submitted works via Blurb and make it available as a catalogue-cum-directory; and then sit back and wait for artworks to fill the gallery walls in all their variant shapes, sizes and colors. It's this last part of the plan that isn't so successful.
I love mail art -- both the tactile and electronic variety. I've got boxes full of envelopes made of magazine clippings and postcards created through rounds of exquisite corpse. I also love many of the pieces in the exhibit, from the magnified image of a squashed copper penny to Judy Dater's re-appropriated fanmail (which eeriely praises her "erotically feminine feet and little, double-jointed toes"). And the accidental rock soundtrack provided by the Camerawork staff while I was there continued to be a bonus, as well.
The problem, again, comes down to installation. The works are broken into four different groups and displayed in clusters around the room, making it difficult to focus and hard for any individual piece to stand out, something I think needs to happen for the viewer to get sucked in. I'm not sure what I would do differently, particularly with such challenging parameters, but the presentation of the exhibit leaves much to be desired.
The 2009 James D. Phelan Art Award in Photography, Leaving A Mark, and the Ersatz Group Exhibition are all on view at SF Camerawork, located at 657 Mission Street in San Francisco, through August 22, 2009.