The Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year with a trilogy of exhibitions highlighting work from its permanent collection. MCA Exposed: Defining Moments in Photography, 1967-2007—curated by Assistant Curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm—is the first of these shows. The exhibition creates a photographic constellation of sorts, highlighting the museum’s rich holdings by both divergent and canonized artists such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger.
MCA Exposed pares the museum’s collection in order to tell the rich history of photography from the past half-century. As a result, the show is particularly concerned with the medium’s development within a larger framework of conceptual art. Photography’s traditional claims to “truthfulness” created a unique opportunity for a self-conscious critique of representation. Combined with increasing technological possibilities, artists expanded the photographic form, using it as a tool to approach questions central to identity, the de-materialization of the art object, performance, social dynamics, politics, and art history. Exposed clusters the markers of this evolution into three themes: appropriation, portraits, and staged photographs. By the end of the exhibition, however, it is clear that these categories are not always mutually exclusive.
Quoting and reproducing a wide array of imagery, the works reconsider the meaning of originality and authorship. What is the role of the artist as producer? Who is depicting whom, and to what end? What do we want from images and their sources? These questions are as broad as their answers. For example, Bruce Nauman’s photograph, Self-Portrait as Fountain, collapses the debate over the art object and the artist as producer by positing himself as the “artwork.” An evocation of Duchamp’s Fountain, a topless Nauman spits a graceful arc of water toward the viewer. The photograph here is a documentation of a performance, becoming an object itself while referencing Nauman’s body as a type of readymade fountain.
Barbara Kruger, in the next room, relies on the power of words to re-define her photographs. Although her aesthetic is now as recognizable as a brand name, Kruger’s work never comes across as dumbed-down identity politics. Untitled (We construct the chorus of missing persons), a monochrome photographic image with this phrase overlaid in large type, is typical of her work from the early 1980s for which she became well known. A blunt social critic, Kruger’s wit is biting and her humor dark. She manages to shatter the silence of the given in social relations with conviction and empathy. As tight as her images are, there is plenty of room in the relation between the text and image for the viewer to wander through. The large scale and loud graphics lure you closer, but it is the perpetual ambiguity of Kruger’s work that keeps the viewer looking.
In the same corner is Lorna Simpson’s Wigs (Portfolio). Rectangles of felt are pinned to the wall, on which images of wigs and anecdotal text are printed, via waterless lithography. Hair, frequently a symbol of African American identity used in her (and many other artist’s) work, is the object that allows for the perpetuation of stereotypes as well as a source of pride. Its significance plays out quietly through the dynamics of everyday choices and conversations. Wigs (Portfolio) is one of the most graceful and important pieces in the show.
The MCA was the first American institution to present a solo exhibition of Gillian Wearing’s work back in 2002; her unexpectedly powerful work, Self-Portrait as my Mother, Jean Gregory, is an excellent choice for Exposed. From a safe distance the image looks like an ordinary portrait of a woman from the 1960s, but a closer look reveals the subject (the artist) is wearing a lifelike mask cast from her mother’s face. One can hardly tell where her mother’s mold ends and she begins, as only her eyes gaze through the literal and metaphorical mask, blurring identities, genealogies, and vision.
Janine Antoni’s Momme functions similarly. At first glance the work is a classically-posed portrait of a middle-aged woman. It soon becomes evident that there is a third foot sticking out from underneath her full skirt and a big bulge distorting her torso. It is the artist herself, huddled within her mother’s clothing, her identity both obscured and defined by this familial dependency. This commentary on the complexities of the mother-daughter dynamic and artistic truth vs. authorial presence corresponds precisely to Wearing’s Self-Portrait.
In exploring MCA Exposed, the patient viewer is rewarded. Wall labels reveal the secrets of the photographs that have been staged or manipulated, but it’s more challenging and fun to try to figure it out yourself—if only to discover that you can’t. Their complexity lies beyond their elaborate construction. A quote by artist Vik Muniz articulates such ambiguity aptly; of his practice, Muniz states: “I don’t want to amaze you with my powers to fool you. I want to make you aware of how much you want to believe in the image—to be conscious of the measure of your own belief…” Few works encourage such belief than Jeff Wall’s In Front of a Nightclub, a large transparency in a light box. Awareness of the complex production process behind his work, including actors, sets, multiple shoots, and digital reworking, completely changes each detail. The gesture of a smoker’s hand, the way a girl clutches her bag, the looks that pass between people; each nuance demonstrates the premeditation and demonstrates the precision inherent to Wall’s work. Photography reproduces much more precisely than other media, but a Wall photograph is still best when seen in person, as are other works in MCA Exposed, particularly Catherine Opie’s untitled diptych, made from the world’s largest Polaroid camera.
In recent years, the term “conceptual art” has become so nebulous that it may seem to be meaningless, perhaps implying a cold pretentiousness and disregard for skill. MCA Exposed is redeeming in its deconstruction of this popular conception, proving that an idea is communicated most successfully when artists engage a form’s material possibilities. The art-star roster, as well as the same old postmodern themes, might make the show appear like redundant photo history. But the works really come alive in this show, carrying on conversations with each other that are enabled through smart, non-obtrusive curatorial practice. They are fresh and relevant as ever, and definitely worth another look.
MCA Exposed: Defining Moments in Photography, 1967-2007 will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through July 29.