Shimon Attie: The History of Another

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through July 2

William Staples

at TBA Exhibition Space, through June 6

For The Writing on the Wall, the early-90s installation that made Shimon Attie’s reputation, he projected archival photos of Berlin Jews onto walls near where the photographs had been taken, reviving the history of the city at the center of the Holocaust. Attie says that only about half his work since then refers to the Shoah, but surely his 18 photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Photography do: here he projected turn-of-the-century black-and-white photos of Italian Jews onto Roman monuments or ruins, then photographed the results. These images do more than simply call to mind mass murder. Rome is a famously layered city, with multiple eras present in the same block, so Attie’s projections literalize the ghosts haunting any place with a long history.

Sometimes Attie heightens this effect by deftly integrating his projected images with the city’s architecture: the portrait of a family in Behind Piazza Mattei fits perfectly into a closed security gate. The photograph’s blacks, whites, and grays form a striking contrast with the warm walls of the building and the cool blue sky, giving the projected image the quality of an apparition. At the same time the portrait covering the gate reminds us that the other visible entryways, the windows on the buildings, and the two cars in the background are signs of human habitation. The image of the past adds to the suggestiveness of the other details–all facades stand in for unseen lives. In Looking Onto Temple of Apollo, which shows spectacular ruins alongside apartment buildings, Attie’s projection of a young boy who appears to be looking out over the scene seems to represent generations of visitors to the temple.

Born in Los Angeles in 1957, Attie grew up among Holocaust survivors–his parents’ friends–and started reading about the Shoah as a boy. Moving to San Francisco to study psychology at 17, he later became a practicing therapist, though an interest in art led him to an MFA in 1991, when he also moved to Berlin.

The images in this show were all made during what Attie calls the “magic” ten minutes of twilight or dawn when the tungsten lights that illuminate Rome are in balance with the sky; aiming for maximum depth of field, he made exposures of two to four minutes. The resulting color contrasts are both lovely and weird, the colors’ sensuality heightening their artificiality; this clash sets the stage for the even stranger projections. Distancing his images from the present, Attie aims to reflect “the way memory functions,” he says, giving his photographs an “ethereal” quality “hovering between presence and absence.” Ultimately Attie’s projections seem simply another stratum of the Eternal City.

In On Via della Tribuna di Campitelli, by contrast, Attie evokes the future. Two children appear to be standing on some steps beside the curved facade of a homey-looking building, while beyond a gate can be seen the skeleton of a brutally rectilinear tower. Here Rome’s twists and niches seem metaphors for the complexity of memory, which the new tower’s rigid form–representing the future–overwhelms and nearly obliterates.

Painter William Staples says he dislikes the word “haunting,” yet many of his ten dark, mysterious paintings at TBA have that quality. Born in New York City in 1966 but a Chicago resident since 1985, Staples prefers “persistence,” referring to images that “have stayed with me for a long time.” Some of the images that he borrows from newspapers, books, and the Internet resonate with his own early memories–televised shots of the Loch Ness monster, photographs of a hooded terrorist who participated in the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972.

Staples heightens the iconic quality of such images by rendering them schematically. In Lake a black curvy head and long neck represent the monster, set against wavy lines, while in Balcony a single hooded figure is set against a blank background. These paintings have the quality of disconnected dream fragments, scary partly because of their lack of naturalistic detail–which helps make them fundamentally inexplicable.

Staples, who has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute, says his study of cinematography and editing helped him in “the process of deciding what stays in” a composition. Other influences include Haitian and Day of the Dead art, the late cartoonish works of Philip Guston, and Velazquez’s famous painting about painting, Las meninas, which Staples calls an “extremely conceptual” work “about sight.”

Staples’s paintings don’t look anything like Velazquez, but the best do have a questioning, even self-referential quality. 1976 is based on a supposed photo of Bigfoot, whose skin here is a mottled amalgam of abstract painterly forms that seem to be coalescing, as if this hulking being–and the painting–were coming together before our eyes. Window is a mostly black painting of a night view from Staples’s window. Its scattered gray, white, and red forms are hard to identify (though he says a grid of gray shapes is based on the window latch), and their nonspecific suggestiveness is what makes them a little scary. Whether Staples is using real-life or fabricated images–the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot–his own representations are oddly more powerful, leaving an emotional residue that defies easy understanding.