On ViewCarnegie Museum of Art
March 14, 2020 – January 18, 2021
(Aperture & Carnegie Museum of Art, 2020)
In her picture of a lieutenant commander sitting below deck on the USS Ronald Reagan, An-My Lê steps back to reveal the naval portrait studio’s illusion: a printed backdrop with its crank for quick adjustment, clamps holding flags in precise position, and a lighting rig peeking out from behind the chair. With his arms carefully placed on the prop desk, this subject’s gaze seems interior, as if meditating on the future product: a distinguished portrait displaying his accomplishments and rank, indicated by the crisp insignia on his uniform. Another sailor leans in to adjust the subject’s tie, the lack of blur indicating a sustained pose. The further our own gaze strays from the picture’s center, the more details we discover to distract from the subject: a ribbon of tape falling off the backdrop’s edge, a curious black mass encroaching into the composition, and a white bowl, its sterile ellipse bending into the distortion at the frame’s edge. Pulling back to the picture’s center, a number of formal relationships become apparent: the line of the lieutenant commander’s right shoulder continued in the band of the sailor’s wristwatch, the analogous shapes of his collar and the flags behind him, and the play between his white cap and the empty bowl to his left. Inflection points in the composition, such as the touch between shoulder and flag, throw the eye into an agitated state.
Lost in this play of line and haze, it is hard not to think of Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington (1796), which became the template for numerous copies and engravings. In Stuart’s painting, Washington’s highly rendered face is surrounded by a field of sketchy brushwork and raw canvas, with evidence of the picture’s former frame in a faded oval. Both Lê and Stuart’s portraits contain these concentric zones of finish, moving from concentration to void and from illusionism to spontaneity; Stuart’s hurried brushstrokes around Washington reveal the artist’s hand in the same way that Lê’s wide view of the photography studio reveals the institutional production of a portrait, the abstracted and anonymous backgrounds allowing for more specific and patriotic insertions by the portraitist. Is it fair to refer to Lê’s picture as unfinished? While Stuart’s portrait was left half-painted in order to fulfill future commissions without the burden of arranging more sittings with Washington, Lê’s negative is fully developed, printed, and reproduced in the catalogue. Yet the lieutenant commander has not sat for his final picture, and our eyes wander over the print, waiting for resolution, wanting the subject to meet our gaze, the illusion to take hold.
What is it that makes us so uneasy looking at An-My Lê’s photographs? Are we unaccustomed to the humanizing effect of soldiers caught in unheroic poses? Or are we uncomfortable with the way some of her military scenes approach the sublime? We may tell ourselves that we have become numb to the increasingly cinematic quality of our military’s activities, but it is hard to deny the effect in Lê’s pictures of a blurred helicopter lost in a great whorl of dust, or of the immensity of the sea captured from a ship’s deck, delineated from the sky only by a slight change in its aquamarine hue. Why do these pictures feel violent? Though many are undeniably pictures of war, they are not taken in zones of active military conflict, but rather in the spaces around conflict: training, aftermath, and reenactment. Many others deal in a violence of another scale: the mining of resources from the earth, the transformation of our landscape for farming, the immense toll of our consumption.
Looking back three decades, two of Lê’s early pictures stand out as precursors: views of the Milani studio in Vicenza and the Fonderia Marinelli in Florence, from the photographer’s European trip documenting guilds and artisans of medieval practices. In one studio, a stone block awaits its carver, drawn figures on its side hinting at its future state; in the other, plaster casts of historical marbles glow in a soft light. Notably, Michelangelo’s David is cut into pieces and reassembled, his right thigh joined together with conspicuous additions. These pictures face in opposite temporal directions: forward, to the conception of a future artwork; backward, to the recreation of masterpieces. Lê’s pictures are about intense desire, which draws us to make form in this world. They seem to say that the weight of history is omnipresent, but shifting—each reiteration sutured together from more disparate sources, lit from a dustier sun.
In the Milani studio, the sculptor’s block is thrown off-kilter by a sly compositional move: Lê has framed an open window pane with a cut in the sculptor’s block, its rectangular contour lining up exactly with the pane. This passage seems to disrupt the picture’s perspective and allow metaphor to take hold; inspiration has swept in from the exterior to carve this stone. The open window becomes a more distinct force the longer we look, akin to a flag’s canton. The wind even seems to blow over the sculptor’s source material on a bench and flip its pages. Peering out the window at the white sky, one can imagine the nearby mountains where this stone was sourced, their mass slowly diminishing with each removal, the landscape imprinted by desire.
There are formal masterpieces in Lê’s project: a view of a family and a flock of ducks in the Mekong Delta, the blurred center of wind and fowl yielding to an impossible two-point perspective; or the cropped scene of tanks and Humvees rolling ominously through the Californian terrain as an anonymous force; or even the behind-the-scenes shot of the filming of Free State of Jones, in which a Hollywood recreation of a white savior in the Civil War is collapsed into a picture of blurred action, flying dirt clods, and a highly-equipped production crew. More enigmatic are some recent images, which focus in closer on their subjects, a citrus tree protected against cross-pollination by a webbing-shield in Fresno, or a view into the restoration of a Turner painting at Yale. We are faced again with a pulling in two temporal directions and also a reckoning with nature: the force of wild growth pitted against human attempts at taming and assimilation, and time’s degradation on artwork against the craftsman’s impulse to reverse it. But not all of Lê’s work is couched in opposition. A softer thread runs through some pictures. Witness the un-staged joy of a group of eclipse watchers in Ho Chi Minh City in ’95, the blurred energy of boys playing soccer that same year in Hanoi, the pleased expression of a war reenactor lounging in the grass, and the play of light in a scene of Texan cattle ranchers. Alongside the violence, there is genuine exaltation.
Lê’s “infiltration” into a band of Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia and North Carolina in 1999 provided the impetus for her first series of war pictures, removed from the war in her native Vietnam by decades. In order to document the reenactors for “Small Wars,” Lê was enlisted to participate as a Viet Cong soldier, sometimes posing herself in the composition. Photographs of intense drama resulted, with slow exposures capturing smoke and fire around the military exercises. There are more focused pictures, too, such as the outline of a tiger cage constructed in the forest, or the close up of bamboo shoots thriving in the American landscape, planted by reenactors for increased contextual accuracy. The most affecting of these scenes is Lesson, where Lê plays a Vietnamese interpreter teaching an American soldier out of a notebook. Though her entire project could be seen as performative—in its process of securing access to landscapes generally hidden from the public, as well as the staging necessary for her large-format camera—here performance is bound in the facture and form of the image, and a strange empathy is felt toward the subjects. From this, Lê’s focus widens and becomes more sweeping in its survey.
After failing to qualify for photojournalist credentials in the Iraq War, Lê set out to photograph war games at the Marine base known as Twentynine Palms. In this series, the Californian desert sometimes seems indistinguishable from pictures out of Iraq, scenes of mortar tests and night bombings becoming increasingly macabre. Most penetrating are the pictures of faux Iraqi towns, with lackadaisical soldiers in untucked uniforms and sloppy anti-US graffiti on the buildings: Kill Bush, Down USA, Free Saddam, etc. What is at stake in the creation of environments meant to prime soldiers for war? What, ultimately, is the goal of such didactic graffiti meant to portray an “enemy” ideology? The aestheticization of violence is as clear in these scrawled mantras as in the sublime night pictures of rocket trails in the desert.
Many of these pictures point to Lê’s most recent series, “Silent General,” which surveys the American South. One photograph captures anti-Trump graffiti following the 2016 election, providing a through line with the Twentynine Palms graffiti and the scrawled forms on the Milani sculptor’s stone. Another shows a Confederate monument in New Orleans behind a faded scrim, recalling a 2003 picture of troops under camouflage netting, as well as citrus trees under their cross-pollination shield. There are also simple documents of violence to the land: scars in the earth from a pipeline, scenes along the US-Mexico border, pomegranate trees stripped bare in California. In this landscape, violence is represented as a slow contest rather than corporeal hurt. These pictures implore us to take steps back, through camouflage and dappled light. What is it that we desire? Whose domain do we look out upon, clouded with smoke and monuments?
I don’t think that An-My Lê means to make photographs of entropy, at least not in the chaotic sense, but these images do show a reciprocity between desire and violence: every act of creation is an act of destruction, every expansion an infringement. So, we return to the lieutenant commander waiting for his picture, the sculptor contemplating the stone. There, before creation, nascent desire points out toward the landscape. We can ask why the pictures are not indictments, why they cooperate with their subjects, and live fluidly in their worlds. The portrait will still be taken, the block will still be chiseled away. In that way, these photographs are true to their medium: making meaning with the past, living uneasily in the present.