Painting on Photography: Photography on Painting

Museum of Contemporary Photography

Before the invention of photography, Western painters generally aimed to depict “reality” as accurately as possible. But every major development in painting in the last 150 years can be seen as a response to the representations made possible by this new technology. The impressionists sought to capture scenes quickly and with a minimum of mediation, inspired to “paint with light” by photographers. Degas even framed and cropped his figures as though through a viewfinder. Later Cezanne’s monumental simplifications and the cubists’ splintering of their subjects implicitly attacked the artistic aim of mimesis.

That dialectic still engages artists in both media, as “Painting on Photography: Photography on Painting” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography shows. The straightest takes on the theme of this ambitious MCP-curated exhibit of 15 painters, photographers, and videographers come from two well-known painters, Gerhard Richter and Eric Fischl. Richter, whose career is defined by his many explorations of the overlap between the two arts, is represented by work from 1989: postcard-size shots of sylvan and urban scenes he painted over with delicate sprays and skeins of color. While deftly done, these miniatures are minor.

Fischl, though, poses large questions with Krefeld Project, Dining Room, Scene #1 (2003). This oil-on-linen painting is based on one of 2,000 color photos he took of actors hired to impersonate a couple in a dining room, though they’re actually in a museum. One photo is mounted next to the painting, which seems at first to be simply a larger reproduction of the shot. But though both show the couple seemingly about to have sex, there are significant differences. In the photo a middle-aged man, dress shirt open, leans amorously over a woman with her back to us, reclining on a chair; a string of pearls shows beneath her short reddish hair, and a dress strap slips off her left shoulder. In the painting, however, these markers of gender are gone, which makes the woman appear androgynous and younger, giving the encounter an extra charge. Fischl’s smudged expressionist style makes flesh less titillating than disturbing.

Like Richter, Rob Fischer paints on photos. But where the august German evokes solemn nods, this antic American cracks you up. Part of a 2004-’05 series is represented here, mounted on Plexiglas and embellished with patches of acrylic. Shot mostly from a moving car, the shots show lumberyards, railroad shacks, and ramshackle dwellings against sublime backdrops of woods and meadows–but his painted overlays make it seem that parts of the images are going up in flames and greasy smoke. It’s as if the friction between the static scene and the passing “shooter” had ignited the image. A prankster/arsonist, Fischer plays with fire not only as a showcase for his wit but to meditate on the relationship between photography and painting, as his series title, “Accidental/Intentional,” indicates and Karen Irvine points out in the show’s brochure. She writes, “Painting, typically best suited for still scenes, and photography, typically better at freezing movement, temporarily occupy each other’s domain.”

Richter with his scrims, Fischl with his omissions, and Fischer with his combustions all take photography as a point of departure. And photographer Joel-Peter Witkin–who’s been striving for decades to shock with his staged black-and-white fantasy scenes–here alludes to his debt to painting in somewhat tamer than usual carnivalesque tableaux. All refer to the old masters: snippets of familiar canvases appear in his scenes, and his compositions echo famous works. An elegant but often sinister parodist, Witkin pays homage to Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las meninas (“The Ladies-in-Waiting”) in a 1987 photograph of the same title, whose central figure–an apparently legless girl in a hoop skirt–resembles the infanta in the original.

Velazquez also pops up in Iraq-born videographer Wafaa Bilal’s Midwest Olympia (2005), though of course the title refers to Edouard Manet’s 1863 nude, a scandalous representation of a contemporary woman of ill repute instead of a figure from history or myth. Projected in its own screening room and set within a heavy, ornate frame, Midwest Olympia is an hour-long digital video in which almost nothing happens. An elephantine naked woman reclines on a chartreuse couch in front of an entertainment center, her face expressing occasional discomfort, her stomach folded in two like a gigantic clam. Behind her stands a man, a la Velazquez in Las meninas, who shifts his own considerable weight from one foot to the other while a cat flits in and out of the frame. Is Bilal aiming to shock, as Manet once did? Is he hoping to jump-start our creativity by rubbing our noses in anomie, like Warhol and John Cage? Whatever, this is a fascinating piece that leaves a deep impression of stillness and strangely re-creates the experience of looking at a painting.

Equally brilliant is Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2001 digital video Still Life, which records in three minutes and 44 seconds the changes in a bowl of fruit over several weeks. What begins as a traditional tabletop arrangement, painterly and mouthwatering in its emblematic abundance, ends as a gooey Oldenberg, an ice cream sundae gone way south or a mound of old guacamole rendered as chemical spill. The time-lapse approach rapidly brings on dancing gnats and cobwebs of mold, evoking a line from Theodore Roethke’s villanelle “The Waking”: “What falls away is always. And is near.”

Taylor-Wood’s simple but striking manipulation of her medium underscores an axiom about photography and painting that’s become increasingly complicated since 1837, when daguerreotypes appeared: between Photoshop for photographers and photo-realism among painters, what’s seen isn’t necessarily what you get.

When: Through July 31: Mon-Fri 10 AM-5 PM, Thu till 8 PM; Sat noon-5 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan

Price: Free

Info: 312-663-5554, 312-344-7104