The Redwood Library & Athenaeum opens an exhibition by artist Daniel Lefcourt

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The Redwood Library & Athenaeum opens an exhibition by artist Daniel Lefcourt
Daniel Lefcourt, The Docent (Shoggoth's Stone) (2023), Inkjet photograph, resin, coated mica in acrylic polymer emulsion, clay, in archival storage box.

NEWPORT, RI.- The Redwood Library & Athenaeum, the nation’s first purpose-built library, think space and public Palladian building, presents Arrangements and Other Photographic Maneuvers: Daniel Lefcourt Arranges the Trevor Traina Collection, now on view in the Redwood’s Van Alen Gallery through October 1, 20023.

A joint curatorial effort between New York-based artist Daniel Lefcourt and Redwood curator Dr. Leora Maltz-Leca, head of the Redwood Contemporary Art Initiative (RCAI), the show brings together over thirty masterpiece photographs from the collection of San Francisco collector Ambassador Trevor D. Traina. Among Traina’s extraordinary collection of contemporary photographs are three of Lefcourt’s monumental Arrangements (2004-05), photographs that examine the processes of collecting, arranging and systematizing that underpin all collections-based institutions like the Redwood. Lefcourt’s Arrangements test the usefulness and contradictions of these processes, grounded as they are in the Enlightenment fantasy of possessing encyclopedic knowledge of the world, usually by extracting objects from their source and reassembling them in new, ostensibly rational systems of meaning. As Lefcourt comments: “The central paradox of museums and encyclopedic knowledge is that they obscure as much as they enlighten… this is the irresolvable problem of the Enlightenment.”

When the Redwood, one of the signal institutions of the American Enlightenment, was offered the opportunity to exhibit works from the Traina collection, the Library invited Lefcourt to revisit his series in multiple ways: first, to curate an “arrangement” of photographs from Traina’s collection, which Lefcourt does by establishing affinities with his own work. Second, the Redwood commissioned a new Arrangement work. The Docent (Shoggoth’s Stone) comprises five boxes-as-books that feature the artist’s cast hand juxtaposed with photographs of objects culled from the Redwood collection. Although these works cite continuities with centuries-old problems of knowledge, illusion and reality, they propose that contemporary technology, especially artificial intelligence, has created profound breaks from Enlightenment-era systems of knowledge. Maltz-Leca comments: “In this series, Lefcourt considers how AI developments such as chatbots demand that we revise our understanding of “encyclopedic knowledge” and the metaphors that structure it. And they ask whether the collapse of the hyperrational into disorder and apocalyptic superstition signal that we are finally on the other side of the Enlightenment’s waning allure.”

The exhibition title departs from Lefcourt’s foregrounding of the hand in these new works: “maneuvers” means the work (oeuvre) of the hand (main) and is borne of the French Enlightenment and its new, sharp distinction between the conceptual and the manual. Arrangements & Other Photographic Maneuvers pays tribute to an expansive notion of arranging—whether flowers, a table setting, or an Instagram feed—one whose contemporary ubiquity can nonetheless be rooted in the Enlightenment myth that rational objectivity underpins systematization. As Lefcourt comments: “The fantasy of knowing anything, building anything, making anything—it’s absolutely necessary and totally absurd at the same time. Isn’t this the same impetus behind establishing a library?”

While the exhibition contextualizes Lefcourt’s new commission alongside his original Arrangement photographs, it also features a dazzling selection of other works by Walker Evans, William Eggleston, and Lee Friedlander, alongside those of contemporary artists like Alec Soth, Doug Aitken, Subodh Gupta, Mike Kelley, Nan Goldin, and Christopher Williams among others. The show comprises five interrelated sections that explore the ways that photographers arrange— or compose—their works, whether through perspectival modes of painting, structuring metaphors of language, or dominant scientific paradigms.

Drawing on Evans’s attention to the street and its signs, as well as his formal plays with doubling, photographs by Doug Aitken, Alex Soth, Kenneth Josephson, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Lee Friedlander, and Louise Lawler reprise Evans’s arrangements by means of reflections and internal frames. Creating pictures of pictures, the camera’s frame here doubles another frame, whether a window, a picture, a billboard, a sign, or a mirror. This trope of post-war photography gestures knowingly to the notion that a photograph is a subjective arrangement, and to the idea that all pictures come from other pictures.

Contemporary artists have long engaged with the genre of highly posed, conspicuously artificial, almost camp commercial photography—whether Hollywood film stills, commercial advertising, or sampling from commercial storyboards—to critique tropes of popular culture. Arguing for the fiction of Evans’s documentary “truth” Cindy Sherman performs the narrow range of stock types to point up the toxic ideals of smiling beauty and sexualized glamour, while Mike Kelley’s send-up of Land-o-Lake’s outdated branding lampoons the suffocatingly limited role indigenous women are conventionally thrust into. Like Kelley’s, Muniz’s 2004 Pictures of Diamonds series is a highly orchestrated re-arrangement of a commercial photograph that reinscribes the fakeness of glamour and its ephemerality while Nan Goldin’s Crazy Scary underlines the density of today’s pictorial turn and how a saturation of images structure our imaginary.

In Daniel Lefcourt’s Arrangement series, the artist mines the language of the archive and the museum, arraying the multifarious tools of his trade as an artist, image-maker and occasional trickster. Shot on archival gray museum stock, with objects stacked into neat piles, the precisely ordered collections of text, objects and images promise the underlying support of a grid and a structure of rationality. But the institutional grey grounds feign objectivity, unfolding into a series of puns and plays as Lefcourt tinkers with conventions of pictorial illusion and perspective. Joining one idea to another (to create a metaphor); joining one object to another (to create a picture); or joining many objects together (to create a collection) are presented as conceptually analogous operations. All of the items in the photograph—decontextualized from their original context, as all objects in collections are—become ripe to take on new meanings, and to “join” into new metaphoric alliances at the hand of the artist. Like Lefcourt, Chris Williams also highlights the ‘constructedness’ of photography by foregrounding its traditions and conventions; its tricks and gadgets (such as reflection guides and light meters), all presented in the super crisp style of commercial photography.

In a 1964 lecture Walker Evans expressed his “dissatisfaction” with the term “Documentary.” To sharpen the term Evans proposed supplementing the concept of documentary with the attribute “lyric,” musing that the future of the documentary lay in its lyrical aspect. The result is a mode of contemporary photography that increasingly looks like painting: works are drenched in color, are often very large, and embrace lyricism so enthusiastically that there is very little evidence of “documentary” still present. Here works by Subodh Gupta and Ryan McGinley nod to but depart from Evans in their use of saturated color and theatricality.

In The Docent (Shoggoth's Stone) the artist plumbs the Redwood’s 275-year old collection, as he considers new AI developments. For Lefcourt: “The slumbering horror of history will haunt any artist project at the Redwood. So, this project too is a ghost story – a disembodied white hand.” Thinking of specters, Lefcourt turned to the Rhode Island science fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, whose 1936 story At the Mountains of Madness featured the Shoggoth: a monstrous, octopus-like blob that devours its creator. Lefcourt’s quartet unites photographs of text and image with casts of the artist's hand, eerily severed, and clutching a golden nugget. The white hand, produced by casting – itself a “a process of shape shifting” – becomes, as Lefcourt muses, “An amorphous value-holder, a stand-in. For what? Like Shoggoth – the unknowable? For material and social value? For the ideal of Enlightenment knowledge?”

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