David Zwirner Gallery February 27 – March 28, 2009
A distinct nostalgia is stirring in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s recent show, Thousand. A row of a thousand Polaroid prints snake around the pristine white field of gallery walls, each a little window into the artist’s past bodies of work and visual fixations. The linear arrangement, slightly below eye level, asks us to look intently at every frame, and then train our eyes sideways. Each image is in the rich and unique chroma, or silvery black-and-white, that only the peeled-back Polaroid can produce. Seeing diCorcia’s oeuvre, serialized and in the miniature, replete with ardor for a soon-depleted film technology, suffuses his well-catalogued spells of time with impermanence and romance.
Something interesting happens when these intimately scaled pictures are viewed in succession: as our eyes follow the centerline of diCorcia’s horizontal span of images, we are hypnotized by the continuity and disruption of the sequence, in the same way that a photo flipbook aspires to the speed of the film reel. Just as Kuleshov’s theory of montage, which legitimized film as an artistic medium, used single-frame increments to posit the associative possibilities to the viewer, some have described diCorcia’s stills, their luminosity and roving eye, as cinematic. The sequence achieves a rhapsodic gestalt: the blue orb of a stovetop burner flame; a disc of white light; satellite dishes on a desert plane. Some are groups of portraits; some depict tunnel-like spaces, or landscapes with figures. There are overt pairings: to the left, a profile of the Great Egyptian Sphinx of Giza—nose blasted off—borders a handsome profile of a man whose strong, Roman nose wistfully evokes the remains of antiquity; a portrait of a young male prostitute, his back to us, face turned toward one shoulder, mirrors the elongated curve of a swan’s neck.
The photos that are left at the periphery of these clusters and pairs are often even more interesting—happenstance contrasts that resemble more closely the randomness of visual experience, to which we meld narrative. A fine stopwatch. A woman submerged in bathwater blowing bubbles. An ocean expanse filling the frame. This sequence of images suggests transitoriness and infinity. While the associations are open-ended, we can delight in noticing formal connections, such as when a cleaved mound of foam in a pot resembles the form of a woman’s buttocks in the neighboring image. As I carousel through them, I stop at intervals gauged by my own speed and interest: an image of a table of headshots (a photographer’s photograph) next to one of a mirror covered with little stickers of headshots (the kind you found in the late-90s, inspired by Tokyo teenybopper culture). Taken together, they suggest our cyclical desire to see and be seen, and photography’s ability to personalize and depersonalize simultaneously. The roles of the photographer and of those facing the camera intersect periodically, in a kaleidoscope of mirrors and vanities.
The artist’s staging of the observable is one of his strategies to forge art and life through heightened artifice. The street scenes, where he used a strobe light to create hyper-real illumination, capturing passersby from afar without their notice, are stunning in the fullest sense: emphasizing the theatrics of life in the midst of the everyday, while taking both his subjects and audiences by surprise. Likewise, his fashion shoots and photos of strippers meld into snapshots of family, friends, and vacations, domestic comforts and contemplative still lifes, classical ruins, and double-exposure experiments. Through the exhibition’s egalitarian format and hypnotic procession, at a scale smaller than standard-sized consumer prints, we get the illusion of remembrance—a batch capture of someone else’s experiences that could be our own lost moments, the magical forgery of souvenir. This perception has much to do with beauty surmounting artifice, and the way that the unitary fragments of diCorcia’s Thousand reconstitute into a highly personal codex of time mirroring our own.