Ursula Schulz-Dornburg:

Sonnenstand (Stations of the Sun)

at the Art Institute, through March 16

On This Site: Landscape in

Memoriam, Photographs by Joel Sternfeld

at the Art Institute, through March 30

Nic Nicosia: Acts and Sex Acts

at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, through March 15

By Fred Camper

“The outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us,” writes Johan Huizinga in his classic The Waning of the Middle Ages. “The contrast between silence and sound, darkness and light…was more strongly marked than it is in our lives.” Rarely have Huizinga’s words been made as vivid as they are by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s series at the Art Institute. Following the route that medieval pilgrims used across Spain, this German photographer documented the interiors of eight ancient stone hermitages in groups of 3 to 16 photographs. In each, a window or group of windows lets in the sun, whose blazing white beams puncture the darkness and often turn small patches of the walls or floors white. Each print has an amazing tonal range: the white of the sun, complete black, myriad shades of near black that barely reveal the rough stone of the walls and floors, and lighter shades that make these rough textures more visible. Each print not only renders the stone palpable, it reimagines a world in which the main source of illumination was daylight.

Schulz-Dornburg mounts each group in rows, each row identified by day, year, and time of day. Moving from left to right, one can see the sun rise across the sky; comparing dates, one can see the different trajectories of the sun at different times of year. Though at first the photos seem repetitious, the exhibit rewards slow viewing in the intended order–clockwise (the direction followed by shadows on the ground) through two connected rooms, the hermitages arranged by their placement on the route. The exhibit ends with an outdoor photo showing the westernmost point of the pilgrimage: a rocky cliff overlooking the Atlantic. But an outdoor shot of the hermitage follows almost every group. These exteriors not only take us outside but show the source of the light indoors and the relationship of the building to the land and sky. Wonderfully primal, these dwellings appear to have been hewn out of the ground.

The geographical groupings, the allusions to times of day, and the outdoor views create an installation that’s about the buildings and the pilgrimage route. Given the reference in the title to Stations of the Cross–images meant to encourage worshippers to contemplate stages of the Passion–Schulz-Dornburg seems to find a secular religion in these stark, mysterious buildings and in the relationships they forge between sun and stone.

It is, however, easy to imagine that the buildings themselves are more magnificent than this photographic record. Individual photos, though elegant, seem to direct one’s attention not to their own artistry but to the actual light of the sun and feel of the stone. Arguably their realism would pale before real sunlight, and inevitably one wants to make the same pilgrimage. Traversing two small rooms in a climate-controlled art museum can hardly measure up to the experience of weeks of walking outdoors. The modest way Schulz-Dornburg places her photos at the service of the subject matter in the end suggests that a photograph is merely a pale copy of reality.

The aesthetic of modernist art photography relies on compositions, tones, and textures arising from the essential qualities of the photographic print. But to judge from the majority of photo exhibits today, this aesthetic is all but dead: photographers seem to be redirecting their attention to the world, through installation, through the photographs themselves, or both. Joel Sternfeld, a longtime practitioner of modernist color photography, in his “Landscape in Memoriam” series pairs color prints of crime scenes and related sites with wall texts describing the crimes, creating a significant dissonance. A rather beautiful photograph of a small park and some houses is juxtaposed with the information that the park is the site of the house in which “Megan,” whose killing gave rise to Megan’s law, was raped and murdered.

In a book that includes some of the 43 prints on view at the Art Institute, Sternfeld writes that the series had its origin in a 1990 trip to Italy, when he “spent a year photographing the countryside around Rome. As I drove, I often saw roadside crosses and shrines at places where individuals had lost their lives in automobile accidents.” Later, returning to the United States, he was “struck by the accounts of violence…in the newspaper; the vicious and the random nature of the crimes seemed more extreme than I remembered….I found it difficult to see the landscape as I had seen it before.” His pairing of prints and texts also makes it hard to see his moody, pretty photography as one had seen it before. His liquid, sensuous colors seem mismatched with the texts: how could such a gentle scene have been the site of such horrors? These memorial photos remain separate from the crimes, which they do not attempt to depict. Instead we see empty stretches of highway, pretty if decrepit buildings, pleasant parks.

In his choice of crimes Sternfeld makes worthwhile if unoriginal social points. For every child murder or street crime he gives us an institutional or corporate crime as well. A shot of Mount Rushmore is accompanied by a text informing us how the land was stolen from the Sioux; at the Plaza Hotel in New York, we learn, cigarette-company executives met in the 1950s to plan an advertising campaign countering early evidence that smoking causes cancer; in a congressional hearing room, blood-bank officials argued in 1983 that AIDS was not spread through transfusions.

The way these photos present the crime scenes sets up a certain irony. I’ve never seen the Plaza Hotel look quite as pretty as it does here, with Central Park envisioned as its front yard. There’s something almost theatrical about Sternfeld’s compositions: the round memorial in Megan’s park reads like a spotlight at center stage, and a wreath on the motel balcony on which Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered is placed at the center foreground. The Chicago underpass at 108th and Cottage Grove, site of a gang murder, is made to look dramatic, tunnel-like. But the easy ironies Sternfeld sets up don’t go very far.

Accompanying these dramatic images are mundane narratives offering no more than a tabloid account, potentially titillating the viewer but omitting the details needed to understand the crime. (Sternfeld writes that though at first he felt he “had to find all of the answers,” he now realizes “each tragedy demands its own remembrance.”) These pleasant or theatrical images suggest that the violent acts referred to in the texts are fundamentally outside the photographer’s understanding, and our own. This is the mainstream contemporary take on violence, whether it’s a street shooting or the Holocaust: “How could any human being do such a thing?” Hardly a Catholic, I find the doctrine of original sin truer to my experience. Sternfeld posits all criminals as the other while presenting himself as pure, separate from these horrors. He scratches his head in incomprehension, while the viewer is given a remembrance fully as sentimental and as empty of real thought as a kitschy roadside cross.

Nic Nicosia’s 14 recent photos at Zolla/Lieberman are taken from two series, “Acts” and “Sex Acts” (some of his portraits are also on view). He includes no wall texts and gives his photos only nondescript titles like Act 6. Yet he too rejects photography’s older traditions–Weston-like perfect compositions, improvisational street photography. Instead he’s one of a group of photographers who stage one-image dramas created not by photographic manipulation but by using actors, sets, props, and lighting. Their theatricality seems more authentic than Sternfeld’s, however, because theatricality is what they’re about; they don’t purport to be anything but a parade of enigmatic dreams.

Nicosia, 45, lives in Dallas, as he has for most of his life. Though he was interested in filmmaking in high school and studied film in college, his interest in still photography began when he started a camera store. Reacting against the “shoot from the hip” street-photography aesthetic he found predominant at the time, he chose to use “cinematic tricks, making films but doing it in a single frame.”

The “Sex Act” prints, all in color, pose live actors, often made to look like dolls, in various situations. In Sex Act #6 a man in briefs and a woman in bra and panties hold hands “onstage,” but we can’t see their faces: the man appears to be wearing a flesh-colored mask that turns his face into a featureless blank, and the woman’s face is covered with a gigantic pair of red lips. The players are intentionally presented not as convincing characters but as soulless ciphers, figures that can reveal nothing because, having abandoned themselves to theater, there is nothing behind them: all one gets is a blank mask or giant lips.

What gives Nicosia’s work its resonance is the way he manipulates the compositions to articulate this emptiness. His essential tool is darkness. In Sex Act #6 the couple and some curtains are illuminated by separate spots, but darkness encroaches around their edges, forming the image’s fundamental ground. At first Sex Act #5 looks silly, with its five figures on a platform covered in colored sacks with Dr. Denton feet. Two have oversize phallic cylinders hanging from their crotches, while the other three have holes of a similar size. But the darkness gives the pastel sacks a nervous edge, and one soon notes that, tied at the top, they suggest body bags. These are scenes poised between humor and fright, just as the figures seem poised between people and dolls, actors and puppets, living beings and corpses.

In the “Acts” series–black-and-white photos as high as five feet–figures hover even more starkly between being and nonbeing. The nude woman in Act 3 is sensuous enough, but her painted face makes her expression inscrutable, and a spotlight on her casts a larger shadow behind: which figure is “real”? Empty chairs in front suggest she might be a stripper performing in a nearly empty hall–or for herself, or for no one. The eyes of a woman seated on a wooden bench in Act 6 stare blankly, and her face, like her body, is bleached by a spotlight to a pasty white. Behind her is the gray outline of a tree surrounded by darkness, made with a stencil over or inside a light. Because of its organic outlines, the tree feels at least as textured as the washed-out woman.

Though his images seem to portray his own inner world, Nicosia’s photographs are in a way truer than those of Sternfeld and Schulz-Dornburg: rather than pretend to depict the world outside, they reveal their own artifice. The fear and emptiness they evoke feel authentic, the natural consequence of all performance, of all pretense at being something one is not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Hermitage 6, Arruba, Provice of Huesca” by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg/ “Act 3” by Nic Nicosia.