NEWPORT, RI.- The Redwood Library & Athenaeum
, the nations 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 Redwoods 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 Trainas extraordinary collection of contemporary photographs are three of Lefcourts monumental Arrangements (2004-05), photographs that examine the processes of collecting, arranging and systematizing that underpin all collections-based institutions like the Redwood. Lefcourts 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 Trainas collection, which Lefcourt does by establishing affinities with his own work. Second, the Redwood commissioned a new Arrangement work. The Docent (Shoggoths Stone) comprises five boxes-as-books that feature the artists 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 Enlightenments waning allure.
The exhibition title departs from Lefcourts 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 arrangingwhether flowers, a table setting, or an Instagram feedone 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 anythingits absolutely necessary and totally absurd at the same time. Isnt this the same impetus behind establishing a library?
While the exhibition contextualizes Lefcourts 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 composetheir works, whether through perspectival modes of painting, structuring metaphors of language, or dominant scientific paradigms.
PICTURES OF PICTURES
Drawing on Evanss 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 Evanss arrangements by means of reflections and internal frames. Creating pictures of pictures, the cameras 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.
DIVAS, DIAMONDS & BUTTERY VISIONS
Contemporary artists have long engaged with the genre of highly posed, conspicuously artificial, almost camp commercial photographywhether Hollywood film stills, commercial advertising, or sampling from commercial storyboardsto critique tropes of popular culture. Arguing for the fiction of Evanss 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 Kelleys send-up of Land-o-Lakes outdated branding lampoons the suffocatingly limited role indigenous women are conventionally thrust into. Like Kelleys, Munizs 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 Goldins Crazy Scary underlines the density of todays pictorial turn and how a saturation of images structure our imaginary.
ARRANGING, JOINING, CONSTRUCTING
In Daniel Lefcourts 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 photographdecontextualized from their original context, as all objects in collections arebecome 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.
LYRIC DOCUMENTARY & PAINTERLY PHOTOGRAPHS
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.
DANIEL LEFCOURT, THE DOCENT (SHOGGOTH'S STONE), 2023
In The Docent (Shoggoth's Stone) the artist plumbs the Redwoods 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. Lefcourts 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?