Sehnsucht

Light & Sie Gallery, Dallas

Closes September 6, 2008
by Katie Robinson Edwards

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      Hedi Slimane, Untitled, 2005 (detail)
      Black and white print on aluminum, plexiglass
      15 elements, 49 x 10 inches each, 49 x 158 inches overall
      Courtesy Light & Sie Gallery

      View Gallery

      The current exhibition (through tomorrow, September 6) at Light & Sie takes for its title the untranslatable German composite word: Sehnsucht. As the press release explains, Sehnsucht can be “loosely and unsuccessfully translated in English as ‘aspiration’ or `longing.’” To that definition I would add “a yearning for the unattainable.” The concept of Sehnsucht was the motivating impulse behind much German Romantic art, literature and music, and recently the term has seen a resurgence in popularity. Just as the German Romantics felt a nostalgic loss at the dawn of the nineteenth century, so might we feel similarly wistful at the dawn of the twenty-first. As we move into a century dominated by digitally based technologies that infiltrate every aspect of our lives, Sehnsucht could effectively describe our longing for an unattainable wholeness.

      Light & Sie’s exhibition offers a remarkable opportunity to see high caliber, internationally recognized contemporary art in Dallas. To assemble this selection, the gallery brought in guest curator Georges Armaos, who bears an academic background in museum studies and connections to Gagosian Gallery. True, many of the individual works are compelling. But the exhibition’s unifying theme is a huge concept of epic significance. It is overly ambitious to expect that sixteen works by only ten artists could suffice for so colossal a theme. (It also begs the question of who is absent at Light & Sie. An obvious omission is Gerhard Richter, whose entire oeuvre is synonymous with Sehnsucht. I have a long list of less famous names, as surely the reader will, too.)

      Photography looms largest in the Sehnsucht show. Two works are from celebrity photographer Jeremy Kost’s Objectification series. A grid of 72 Polaroids comprises Simon: repeated shots of an undies-clad young man smoking in a bathtub. His lap is filled with a bevy of Barbie dolls. In the other work, Marshall appears nude, putting a female mannequin’s head on various parts of his body. In some Polaroids the female head obscures Marshall’s penis, which could be read as a both a desire and a lack. Both Simon and Marshall document semi-private indulgences, with potentially darker undertones. Seen through a heterosexual or homosexual lens, the works enact fetishistic fantasies with a horde of ideal women (Barbies) or the remnant of one (the mannequin head). In both situations, sexual union (a type of wholeness) is fractured. Unalleviated desire haunts the repeating rows of Polaroids.

      Vanessa Beecroft’s large vibracolor prints of US Navy Seals, MOCA, San Diego are from her 1999 performance. Beecroft’s work is somewhat interesting, although these photos feel like documents after-the-fact. Yet with Jeremy Kost’s naked playboys hanging on the wall nearby, the Navy Seals’ rigid, depersonalized sexuality is heightened and teased. Both Kost’s and Beecroft’s photos relate to striving for an ideal type that may be equally elusive.

      Todd Eberle’s and Thomas Ruff’s work relates to the abstract capabilities of photography. Eberle’s Tube Amplifier c. 1958 (2001) and Untitled (Cray Research Y-MP, 1988) (2008) each depict magnified sections of pioneering technological inventions: a 1958 era stereo amplifier and Cray Research’s early supercomputer. Today these objects are artifacts of long surpassed innovations. Eberle’s photographs aestheticize these bygones, rendering them beautifully useless. Thomas Ruff’s two C-prints feature swirling and contorting fluorescent hues. They are digitally altered scenes from Japanese anime and manga cartoons, though they show no relation to their source. Ruff has taken the figurative source (itself an animated, reproductive form) and created unrecognizable elegant abstractions.

      Hedi Slimane’s Untitled (2005, black and white photos on aluminum panels) is a big work from a big name. It’s slick, skinny and mostly black (a humorous echo of Slimane’s tenure at Dior Homme?). At the far right, a photo of a Baroque angel is printed across five panels. It looks like Gabriel in the Annunciation, facing ten solid black reflective panels. Yet instead of bringing the revelation to the Virgin Mary, this angel is the harbinger of black minimalist panels. It’s hard not see Untitled as tongue-in-cheek, despite the serious potential for allusion to the fragmented Catholic Church in the twenty-first century. The Sehnsucht theme is figured by the loss of the angel’s traditional audience (Mary) and the diminished impact of religion on art in the twenty-first century.

      Two of David Reed’s vertical paintings #570 and #571 (2005-2007, oil and alkyd on polyester) are luscious yellowy orange with dark curving brush marks. Reed’s work confounds the distinction between “authentic” painterliness and the synthetic replica of the mark. Near the Reed, Dan Walsh’s painting is a lovely, old-fashioned canvas that holds its own in a gallery of slick, reproductive techniques. Walsh’s grid of hand painted red and green squares are a self-conscious throwback to minimalism. Also present is an Ingrid Calame constellation drawn on trace Mylar. The translucent abstract marks record a history of human pedestrian traffic which Calame hand codes into hermetic and graceful colored pencil drawings.

      Video projections by Joseph Dadoune and Kimsooja are in Light&Sie’s back galleries. Dadoune’s Sion is overworked and grandiose (it was filmed in the Louvre); the appropriation of the museum itself and of silent film tropes results in campiness (perhaps inadvertently). The antithesis to Sion is Kimsooja’s ethereal video projection, An Album: Havana. Where Dadoune hammers us on the head with literalness, here Kimsooja takes subtlety literally. There are moments when the viewer searches in vain for what’s on the screen, or has it gone blank? Then the bare hint of people walking across the screen reemerges. The figures, perpetually deferred, will never come into focus.

      Thus the Sehnsucht theme is lightly sketched through two videos, a few photographs, a drawing and three paintings. It may have been the curator’s sly intention to leave us “longing” for more work, a further play on Sehnsucht. More likely, the narrow exhibition was due to lending and logistical constraints. Let’s support the ideal, though, and aspire to visit Light & Sie’s future projects

      Katie Robinson Edwards is Assistant Professor of Art History at Baylor University's Allbritton Art Institute.

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