"Industria" September 5 - October 24, 2008, Flatfile Galleries, 217 N. Carpenter, Chicago IL 60607
Reviewed by James R. Hugunin
Chicago photographers Ryan Zoghlin and Dimitre and sculptor Terrence Karpowicz presented work under the gallery's exhibition theme "Industria." Here I wish to address only the photographic work in that show, contextualizing it with earlier artworks that also address our industrial landscape.
Gallery Announcement; artwork from left to right: Dimitre, Karpowicz, Zoghlin
To change the situation [of our technologic society] we require new
symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is
in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure
the responsibility of society. The machine's entrance into the garden
presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics.
-- Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden
The connection between modernism and technology, the Machine Aesthetic, has been well-documented. Internal combustion engines and electrical dynamos became symbols of a New Age for both capitalist and socialist. Thomas Hart Benton's Instruments of Power (1939) is a collage of American industrial might; Benton's visual distortions captures the dynamism of the machine age. While the Commisar's refrain: "Communism equals electrification plus the soviets," calculated the Russian hopes for a brighter future. Utopian hopes for Henry Ford and Lenin were caught up in the fast developing technologies which required ever increasing modes of power to run them. Russian poster of the period reflected this desire to move a largely feudal society into the modern industrial age.
Instruments of Power (o/c, 1939) Thomas Hart Benton
We are Building (poster study, 1929) Valentia Kulagina
Even when The Great Depression put the brakes on abstraction in art and rampant economic development, the carrot dangled before the masses was still better living through technology. Franklin Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project to bring hydro-electric power to rural areas was championed in such hopeful images as Lucien Bloch's Land of Plenty (1935) where huge power poles emerge like giant stalks of corn from an abundant cornfield, conflating nature/culture into a single force for utopian aspirations.
Land of Plenty (woodcut, 1935) Lucien Bloch
The 1939 World's Fair -- its theme being "The World of Tomorrow" -- re-enforced the connection between technological advancement, scientific planning, machine efficiency, and better living. The Fair's streamlined structures, the Trylon and Perisphere, became symbols of modernity and our impending better future. The Fair's huge General Motors's pavilion housing Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit modeled a future around the supremacy of the private automobile serviced by super-highways and surrounded by high-rises inspired by Le Corbusier's City of Towers (1923) plan. When leaving the exhibit, one was given a badge proclaiming "I've seen the future." During the Fair, Vogue magazine kept with the utopian theme featuring fashions of the future. The jumpsuit clad, bearded lad in one image is fully equipped for the Age of Electricity.
Futurama (General Motor's Building, 1939 World's Fair, NYC) Norman Bel Geddes
Fashions of the Future (from Vogue, Feb. 1939) anonymous
The focus on the future maintained its pull on the populace even after the horrors of World War II. Disneyland, Buena Park, California and later Disney World's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomrrow (E.P.C.O.T.) in Orlando, Florida stressed the world of tomrrow with its futuristic architecture and transportation systems like the monorail.
E.P.C.O.T. (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, 1982) Disney World, Orlando, Florida
By the early 1950s some philosophers decried the modernist paradigm. French thinker Jacques Ellul railed against the loss of human control in the face of the "one best way" logic of "technique" in The Technological Society. Martin Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" argues that the essence of technology resides in its "enframing" of nature as a "standing-reserve" to be exploited. But offers some hope in how artists might reframe technology. Some artists, like Jean Tinguely via his self-destructing machines, also sent out warning signals, but until the 1960s' counter-culture movement, our road to progress went merrily along. The first real glimmer of a shift in attitude within a broader public came in 1970 with the publication of Ernst Callenbach's early 1970s novel Ecotopia; but it too envisioned a better future via technology, albeit through eco-friendly versions and a modified socialist society.
Homage to New York, remnant (1960) Jean Tinguely
By the 1980s, however, the paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism deconstructed the master discourses of science and technological mastery with its teleological projection toward a brighter future. People's lived exper-ience in an environment increasingly over-built and predicated on ecologically unsound technology, chipped away at utopian hopes. Dystopian envisionments in the popular media (e.g., the film Blade Runner) began to replace older utopian assumptions. The very technology that was to usher in a harmonious future began to encroach and despoil our dwelling.
John Humble, a Los Angeles-based photographer since 1974, has developed a keen eye for the odd, and often visually painful, juxtapositions found as he drives about that smog-choked Inland Empire. Those high-tension wires lauded in Bloch's 1935 woodcut are now seen as sprouting from tacky pre-fab trailer-homes -- not only visually ugly, but hazardous to health according to recent studies. In another of his images from this 1980s series, a stucco tract home with barren backyard appears to have oil rigs madly pumping black gold from it as a telephone pole casts its ugly shadow across the threshold. As a former resident of Los Angeles myself, these images remind me not to return.
Los Angeles, CA (Type C-print, 1980) John Humble
Los Angeles, CA (Type C-print, 1980) John Humble
Ryan Zoghlin, Chicago's answers to L.A.'s John Humble, also explores the intersection between dwelling and tech-nology. El trains, expressways, and jet airlines skirt homes. Instead of the title "Industria," Zoghlin's body of work on exhibit at Flatfile could have been aptly titled "Disturbia." What his camera cannot record -- sound -- he implies by spatial juxtaposition. Where Humble focuses on visual urban blight, Zoghlin directs us to contemplate the perpetual racket we are subjected to in city life. Both photographers have superb eye for composition servicing their respective conceptual programs. In Commuter Train, Zoghlin builds his image around triangular roof lines nipped by a sweep-ing arc of train and track. We feel the formal tension in the proximity of the train and house roof as well as imagine the never-ending sound decibels disturbing the resident of that dwelling. And all of this happening in the context of a vivid green nature (a tree shadow intrudes across analogous to Humble's telephone pole), deep blue skies.
Commuter Train (22 x 28 in., archival digital print, 2007) Ryan Zoghlin
Interchange is as formally astute. A web of horizontals / verticals in line and rectangular form repeat throughout the image. Like a sculpture's base, the curving curb and sidewalk anchors the house, whose lines strain optically due to the perspective distortion, strain like this sad place wants OUT of its straight-jacket. The horizontal rectangular hulks of the passing trucks echo, and contrast with, the vertical rectangle of the house with its heavily framed rectangular windows and odd door, placed as it trying to escape the racket. The massive concrete framing around the two-story structure echos the poured cement expressway structure. Utilitiy poles frame the home like bookends. In optical space, the roadway slams into a leafless tree, nature assualted by culture, all under a bright blue sky. Again we sense the residents locked in, victims of not only traffic noise, but also exhaust fumes. Like the previous image, one can help wonder "Who'd tolerate living there?" In response, of course, class issues come to mind here as they do in Humble's work too: "Who'd live there? Why those who can't afford to be a NIMBY (an advocate of "Not in my backyard," and the title of a limited edition book by the artist).
Zoghlin's incisive visual critiques of the placement of the machine in our garden desublimates the "technological sublime" (what Leo Marx meant by the complex hybrid of technological progressivism and the pastoral ideal arising in America) that Dimitre's large prints, in contradistinction, intensify.
Interchange (22 x 28 in., archival digital print, 2007) Ryan Zoghlin
Dimitre (yes, it's just Dimitre) shows familiar things, like our electrical infrastructure, in a new way; he rescues what we might mistake as mundane by his sharp eye for strong formal relationships and a good sense of how to heighten impact via Photoshop enhancement without over doing it. Moreover, his prints are LARGE, enveloping the viewer. The result is what Caroline A. Jones in Machine in the Studio (1996) calls an "iconic" expression of Leo Marx's "technological sublime." Dimitre's Electric Sub reminds me of Walt Whitman's word about "singing the strong light works of engineers," and recalls the Precisionist painter, Louis Lozowick's, celebration of electrical power, High Voltage -- Cos Cob (1930). But whereas Lozowick was formalizing what people saw as positive signs of an emerging utopia, Dimitre is reclaiming what appears today as a pox upon our landscape in positive terms. Today we just tune out such powerlines as unwanted visual blights. Dimitre forces us to sit up and regard these structures in a fresh way. Surprise is what one feels in looking at his large prints (both he and Zoghlin do commerical photographic work, but of the two, Dimitre's is the most graphic and polished in presentation). In several of Dimitre's images, light seems to exude from the print such that from across the gallery one might easily mistake them for backlit Duratrans presentations. Power, their subject, appears to literally jump into the viewer's own space. The large prints are seductive and fascinating. In Electric Sub the brightest part of the composition backlights a phallic-looking feature among the gridded wires. Analogously, in Double Cool, a nuclear powerplant's steam and nature's clouds is backlight by a romantic moon.
High-Voltage -- Cos Cob (o/c, 1930) Louis Lozowick
Electric Sub (30 x 45 in., archival digital print, 2006) Dimitre
The beauty and moody atmosphere in Dimitre's images recalls to mind both Chicago photographer Michelle Keim's earlier work and mateiral collated in her recent photobook Iron Beauties (Nazraeli Press, 2006) and John Pfahl's "Power Places" series from the early eighties. A blurb on Catherine Edleman Gallery's webpage concerning Keim's work puts this fascination with industry well: "Steel mills and power plants contain the same tense beauty and spectacular power as volcanoes and electrical storms, and serve as a reminder that industrial age technology is powerfully in the present."
U.P. Michigan, from the "Natural Resources Series," (40 x 50 in.,1997) Michelle Keim
Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, Columbia River, Oregon from "Power Places" (Type C print, 1982) John Pfahl
Steering clear of direct confrontation with ecological issues, both Pfahl and Dimitre render picturesque nuclear power facilities. Cooling towers are obvious emblems of this controversial technology and both photographers feature them as mysterious manmade eruptions in the landscape, like a volcano uncertain. Paraphrasing curator Sally Eauclaire's insightful remarks about Pfahl's photos of nuclear plants in New Color / New Work (1984) for my purposes here: Are these elegiac summaries of our civilization or steamy death's heads like those popping up in seventeenth-century landscapes in which all that is missing is the motto: "Et in Arcadia Ego" --"I [death] am also in Arcadia."
Double Cool (45 x 30 in., archival digital print, 2006) Dimitre
In summary, Flatfile Gallery has again presented thought-provoking work with a social edge in their "Industria" exhibition. The choice of artists presented the show's theme, Industria, in contrasting modalities and was well-presented. The diverse work and approaches resonated well together, provoking repeated visits to see the show again and again.
James Hugunin teaches the History of Photography and Theory at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago