Thomas Struth

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 28

El ojo fino

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through October 5

My favorite variant of the idea that the real world is a bleak, tedious place is the phrase “reality hit me,” implying as it does that reality is a violent, unforgiving entity that can’t be changed under any circumstances. Many photographs in the Thomas Struth retrospective–curated by Charles Wylie of the Dallas Museum of Art and now at the Museum of Contemporary Art–depict what appears to be a variation on this immutable real world. At the same time, their large formats and compositional integrity suggest an underlying optimism.

This exhibit of 100 works ranges from early photographs of German cities, Chicago, and New York to a set of family portraits–created with a psychoanalyst who wondered if people’s placement would reveal the family dynamics–to a set of flower images produced for hospital rooms in Germany, to some very large photographs called “Paradise of Tropical Flora.” The early photos of housing complexes are not particularly large–18 by 22 inches or 27 by 33–but in the later photos the scale creates its own set of meanings: some are 105 by 133 inches. What unifies the exhibit is Struth’s questioning of systems of order, especially as revealed in the transformations technology has brought to cities worldwide.

Most powerful are the cityscapes and the museum photographs. Early on Struth photographed buildings and let the viewer imagine their inhabitants, but later he became interested in the patterns people make as they move through architectural spaces. One of the standard criticisms of modernist architecture is that the buildings are not of a scale and design to suit the people who use them, and Struth’s images seem to address questions about what is a rational, humane, and pluralistic social order.

Black-and-white photographs (from the 1970s through 1990) of mercilessly rectilinear housing projects in Germany and Chicago don’t so much record the buildings as confront us with them. Many are so imposing yet dreary that one can’t help wondering about the processes that produced them–the overly rational social visions that relied on concrete grids to discipline an unruly postwar world. Struth–who mentioned several times during the show’s opening lecture that he feels a sense of responsibility is crucial to art–suggests an implicit violence in their starkness through the use of a static, scrupulously centered camera and unmanipulated prints. Such photographs as South Lake Street Apartments, Chicago (1990) silently but resolutely ask what errors and miscalculations–or machinations of power–brought these buildings into being. The East German housing complexes are similar to what we used to call the “human filing cabinets” of the Richard J. Daley era.

Struth began placing his camera in the middle of the street when he was at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf studying with Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter. The school was made famous by Joseph Beuys, who saw all art as a form of social activity. Struth’s symmetrical compositions intensify the dull geometry that characterizes the Chicago buildings in particular. And if the site is irregular, his large prints register every curve and angle. The complex grid of a huge apartment building in Le Lignon, Geneva (1989) is bisected by the curve of a gentle hill, which makes the complex seem livable. Meanwhile the hillside full of idiosyncratic dwellings in Vico dei Monti, Naples (1988) provides an entirely different solution to the question of housing.

The huge museum photographs that the MCA is using to promote the exhibit are complex and beautiful, recalling Renaissance paintings. Viewers–some blurred, especially in dark interiors where the shutter speed is slow–dressed in primary colors that mirror their Renaissance ancestors move through the foreground while sensuous paintings tower over them. In one photograph a crush of faces and shoulders beneath a window is juxtaposed with calm tableaux of biblical scenes. The great frescoes and paintings dwarfing viewers in Galleria dell’Accademia 1, Venice (1992), Stanze di Raffaello 2, Rome (1990), and San Zaccaria, Venice (1995) remind us that it was the great project of the Renaissance to create spaces in proportion to the human form. Previous cultures–the Romans, for instance–used the constructed environment to impress their subjects with the power of the state. Struth captures this dynamic of scale in Pantheon, Rome (1990), which shows a cluster of tiny humans under the structure’s blind “windows.” The tourists in Struth’s huge photos wander through vast spaces, their fluid, ephemeral patterns in complete contrast to the determinacy and regularity of the architecture. Masterpieces like Gericault’s melodramatic The Raft of the Medusa, itself a monumental 16 by 23 feet, seem all the more contrived in comparison with Struth’s random gaggles of mismatched late-20th-century admirers in Louvre IV, Paris (1989).

Despite the “postmodern” use of visual quotations–implicit in museum settings–Struth’s compositions are resolutely formalist and modernist. He invites us to leave the museum not lulled by pleasure, feeling superior, or stalled by ambivalence but asking the same questions he does. Even the self-reflective situations he sets up–the spectators contemplating other spectators, while we look at all of them–extend the modernist tradition of questioning the nature of the aesthetic process.

The most recent photographs in the exhibit were taken in 2001 in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which houses the reconstructed Altar of Zeus from Pergamon in Asia Minor. These images, like the earlier ones of museums, seem to capture the inadvertently graceful patterns of moving visitors, but they were

actually choreographed by Struth after days of trying to find just the right arrangements of people in this huge interior. Light from the ceilings bounces off the white walls, marble floors, and the altar itself. Standing out against all the reflective and translucent surfaces are viewers scattered throughout the space–sitting on the vast staircase to the altar, standing or sitting on benches, gazing or pointing at something outside the frame. Rows of Ionic columns grace a reconstructed arcade while fragments of high-relief sculpture suggest a society that revered the human form, empirical observation, history, and balance.

What Struth records are layers of ideas, representations of representations, a space within a space. He documents not the objects–although once again the large format gives us so much detail that we can see the paintings and sculptures–but our inability to relinquish them. We know that the marvelous things on display in museums are compromised by imperialist and industrialist goals. At the same time, because Struth believes in history, he understands that these spaces and artifacts offer a language for asking the questions that might lead us to some clarity about ourselves and our actions.

When Eastman invented the box camera and marketed it to the multitudes, most believed anyone capable of producing beautiful “pictures.” But an eight-by-ten view camera is expensive and not easily portable, and the process of framing and developing the image is likewise specialized. Even the cost of producing the prints can be prohibitive, harking back to the tradition of the masterwork.

“El ojo fino” (“The Exquisite Eye”) at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum is at the opposite end of the spectrum from grand photos. This small-scale exhibit features nine Mexican women photographers–none international stars, except perhaps Graciela Iturbide–who often worked in communication with one another, producing very fine 35-millimeter-format 8-by-10- and 18-by-24-inch black-and-white prints. These detailed works are rich in craftsmanship and subject matter. Lola Alvarez Bravo (born 1907)–the wife of Manuel Alvarez Bravo and a friend of photographer Tina Modotti–became the director of photography at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, where she was able to mentor and fund other photographers like Mariana Yampolsky. A teacher, Yampolsky in turn worked with photographers born as recently as 1970, like Angeles Torrejon. So the show represents an old girls’ network.

None of these intimate, powerful photographs is global–all are focused on the small realities of Mexico: street scenes, interiors, landscapes, and portraits that capture the strength and dignity of common people. Yampolsky’s iconic shot of an agave cactus and her view of concrete flower sculptures are striking, their formal strength clearly revealing Modotti’s influence. Indeed, what connects all these works is attention to texture, contrast, light and dark, and composition, and the sense that the momentary and the eternal converge as the shutter opens and closes.

The sense of solitude in two photographs of rural Mexico by Alicia Ahumada capture for me what Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya calls “the silence”–the llano, the plain. In Colgando al viento a woman is bringing in clothes before a storm. We see only part of her figure, the clothesline pole, what look like blankets billowing in a strong wind, and beyond them a dark, flat expanse of land and stormy sky. The surface is fluid and dark, almost abstract, but there’s just enough human action in the foreground–beautifully unformulaic, the woman’s body connecting the earth and sky–to produce an extraordinary image. Next to it is another lonely Ahumada photo, Paisaje con huila, showing the wall of a house, the land and the sky, and two horses hitched to a wagon, although there’s no one to be seen.

Yolanda Andrade’s simple but striking Las alas de deseo catches a man leaning on a lamppost, naked except for handmade wings, a butterfly over his genitals, and white socks and running shoes. Squinting in the direction of the street, he looks like a circus performer waiting for the bus. Of course the circus or carnival has always been a place where the rules of society are inverted, but this shot documents that everyday people also challenge gender roles.

Andrade’s El y ellas (1988) continues the theme of gender: a cartoon of what seems to be the Incredible Hulk is painted on a wall richly textured by peeling paint. Beneath the Hulk are six pale, smooth store mannequins–some complete female figures, others waist-down sections with little pointed feet like Barbie dolls. Although Andrade’s juxtaposition evokes the strong current of surrealism typical of Mexico, arising from its commingled cultures and nurtured by its cosmopolitanism, it’s perhaps also the unconscious model for a famous Iturbide photo, Heroes of the Homeland (1993). Here the subject’s not gender stereotypes but democracy: an old man with a dark, wrinkled face seems unaware of the four portraits of political figures hanging high on a wall above him, the images connected and divided by some dream logic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Thomas Struth. Yolanda Andrade, Alicia Ahumada.