Twenty years after the birth of photography, Charles Baudelaire called the medium an invention of the superficial, saying its emphasis on "exactitude" was a cheap substitute for the subtleties contained in painting, poetry, and other real art. Baudelaire's angry condemnation — replete with words like "stupidity of the multitude" — still resonates today with people who believe photography promotes a strictly surface view of the world. But two new exhibits rebut this belief — in dramatic fashion.
At the de Young Museum, Marco Breuer's abstract expressionist photos — some of them transformed by bullets, razor blades, and other forceful instruments — depict landscapes of the imagination. At Haines Gallery, meanwhile, David Maisel's X-ray photos reveal the interior worlds of statues, vases, spears, and other ancient art objects. Maisel's work is both haunting and gorgeous — like seeing ghostly images of inert beings that emerged from slumber to explain themselves. Breuer's work is more mysterious, quasipainterly pieces that have more in common with Robert Motherwell than with Robert Frank.
What unites Breuer and Maisel is their interest in a kind of time-lapse photography. Breuer's de Young show, "Line of Sight," and Maisel's Haines engagement, "History's Shadow," investigate the passage of time through traditional art and modern photography. Maisel started by going to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, and combing through scores of X-rays already taken of prominent older holdings. (Museums take these images to document their collections and to record their condition.) Maisel then rephotographed the X-rays on light boxes in a darkened room, and in the printing, emphasized colors that, in conjunction with the images' stark backgrounds, give the depicted objects a new hypnotic glow.
"I have to say I've never been a fan of art from antiquity, because I thought, 'What does it have to say to the here and now?'" says Maisel, standing in his Sausalito studio. "But what surprised me was how alive and how contemporary this work felt."
Like X-rays of humans, Maisel's photos show body parts, crevices and chasms that are normally hidden from everyday view. In the shoulders and elbows of a 17th-century Buddha, for example, we see a series of staples that seem to hold the statue in place. These interior joints become curious imperfections — internal tattoos that merge with the outside layers to give the Buddha a more complete dimension. This feeling of "completeness," a feeling that we're seeing inside revered objects, is one reason Maisel's images are so startling.
Breuer's work is more subtle but no less alluring. Taking photographic paper, which is chemically designed to alter itself, he subjects the sheets to the rigors of a photo process — but without a physical camera. Instead, Breuer alters the paper with burning coals, a hot frying pan, ammunition from a 12-gauge shotgun, and anything else that inspires him. Wild patterns emerge. One piece at the de Young, Untitled (Study for Tremors), looks like the inside of an ancient catacomb. Spin (C-818), made by putting paper under the moving needle of a record player, looks like a psychedelic constellation of planets and moons. Breuer was trained in photography at a high academic level in Germany, but he turned his back on six years of formal schooling, though his work is reminiscent of early "photograms" (images produced on photo paper without cameras), and he still considers himself a photographer.
"My frame of reference is photography," he says, standing in the de Young where his work is on display. "I went to very traditional photography programs in Germany — very much 19th-century techniques taught at the end of the 20th century — and things were very strict; there's a right way and a wrong way to do things in Germany. I was looking for some place within the medium where those rules didn't apply, where I could make up my own — and that was going deeper into the material itself."
A few feet from Breuer's exhibit, in an adjacent room, are the de Young's top abstract paintings, including Motherwell's At Five in the Afternoon, a globular work inspired by Federico García Lorca's poetry and by what Motherwell called his search for "the unknown." That's what Breuer seems to be seeking, too. The de Young gave Breuer even more leeway by having him juxtapose his work against items from the museum's permanent collection. With photo papers that were shaped with a weapon, Breuer chose to display a 19th-century four-barrel shotgun. Near Untitled (Study for Tremors), Breuer set up a 19th-century dress whose original blue dye has faded almost into nothingness. Breuer fell for the garment because it embodies the idea that collectibles — even those in world-class institutions, where temperatures are controlled to keep items in pristine condition — age and change shape over time.
This same idea of impermanence and evolution can be seen in Maisel's previous photo project, "Library of Dust," which showcased canisters of cremated remains that have been kept for decades at a psychiatric facility in Oregon. Without knowing much about "Library of Dust," the project might seem like a ghoulish exercise. Who would have the temerity to enter an old "nut house" and photograph copper cylinders of human remains that have morphed into fantastical colors? Maisel. Like Breuer, Maisel walked away from his academic training, which was architecture. Maisel's professors expected him to build great buildings. Instead, he found his home in photography — and found he could incorporate an "inside-out" architectural aesthetic into his new profession.
Maisel's and Breuer's photos offer new ways of considering established art objects, and new ways of considering the art of photography. Even Baudelaire (curmudgeon that he was) would have found these exhibits appealing, and would have admitted that photography has taken its rightful place in the pantheon of high art.