It is an article of faith in contemporary art that consumerism is bad. But if people stopped buying unneeded stuff, the economy would collapse, and where would we be then? So artists continue to worry about consumerism and its soul-eroding effects, as they have been doing for at least the last half century.
Photographers seem to be especially concerned with the topic, maybe because of the degree to which their medium is used to grease the wheels of commerce. In reaction, many conceptually minded artists turn photography back on itself, looking askance at its panoptical gaze, and “New Photography 2012” at the Museum of Modern Art offers some interesting examples.
Organized by Eva Respini, a MoMA photography curator, it is not a theme show. But it happens that four of its five participants focus on one aspect or another of industrially manufactured culture. We are invited to ponder relations between artifacts of mass production, technologies of reproduction and our own infinitely manipulable selves.
Anne Collier approaches these matters in a cool, classical, subtly witty way in large, pellucid staged photographs. She can be too obvious, as in a picture of a photo magazine double-page spread in which cameras and texts extolling them hover against the background of a nude female torso.
On the other hand, she can be insiderish. A photograph of a MoMA date book opened to a page bearing a reproduction of one of Edward Weston’s photographs of his young son’s naked torso nods to what the initiated will recognize: Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of images from that series for her own meta-photographs.
At best, as in a picture of old vinyl-album covers in two stacks leaning against a blank wall, Ms. Collier gets at something less predictable. The facing ones present photographs of blue sky punctuated by different wispy clouds. There is a poetry here that intimates something of the hold certain valued objects can have on inchoate feeling and imagination.
More heavy-handed are color montages, resembling slick advertisements, by Michele Abeles, in which we see the bodies of naked men through spaces in grids and between stripes cut from translucent colored plastic, newspapers, wrapping paper, still-life photographs and other sorts of printed material. Since we are more accustomed to the use of female bodies as attracters of consumers’ eyes and minds, Ms. Abeles’s substitution of the male body may cause a flicker of cognitive dissonance. But her images are too literal to unsettle habitual expectations deeply.
Artifacts of mass culture are not always tangible objects. Shirana Shahbazi’s large color abstractions picture what philosophers call “secondary qualities”: the colors, light and textures that contribute to the allure of desirable commodities. Some feature geometrically divided sections of saturated color. One depicts three shiny spheres, yellow, red and white. While the qualities in Ms. Shahbazi’s pictures do not seem to adhere to any recognizable things, they certainly are attached to the objects immediately present to viewers: the photographic prints themselves. These are deluxe commodities, whatever else they may be or mean.
Cultural artifacts can also be prepackaged fantasies delivered by movies and fan magazines. A work by Zoe Crosher, “The Michelle duBois Project,” is based on a trove of amateur snapshots saved by Ms. duBois, a woman from the American Midwest who traveled a lot and sometimes worked as an escort in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Taken by Ms. duBois and anonymous others, they represent her in various stereotypically glamorous guises: sexy nurse, blond movie star, dark temptress and so on. She was, it seems, a kind of naïve Cindy Sherman.
Ms. Crosher’s part has been to rephotograph, enlarge, alter and strategically display these pictures in ways Ms. duBois probably never imagined. These interventions are problematic. Two much-enlarged pictures show partly crumpled portraits of Ms. duBois looking quite lovely in a small black hat with a see-through veil, gold gloves and a dark fur coat.
Did Ms. Crosher find the photographs already crumpled? Did she crumple copies of them for her own purposes? We do not know. In any case, Ms. Crosher’s source material is far more intriguing than anything she does to massage our thoughts about it.
Considering these four photographers, you might wonder: what about real life, which photography was once thought capable of capturing with unrivaled acuity?
That is where the two-man team known as Birdhead comes in. Ji Weiyu and Song Tao use nondigital (i.e., analog) cameras and film to shoot scenes all around their hometown, Shanghai. Printed in black and white on unframed sheets arranged in a grid on the gallery wall, their shadowy photographs of people, buildings, skies, trees and other ordinary subjects create an appealing visual stream of poetic consciousness.
But with a much larger picture of the two artists posing like rock stars at the center of the grid, flanked by a pair of real antique wooden cabinet doors that are attached to the wall on top of some of the photographs, their presentation takes on an off-putting grandiosity. It comes down to branding, after all.
“New Photography 2012” continues through Feb. 4 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.