Cheim and Read
October 16 – November 15, 2003
Adam Fuss is best known for his contemporary photograms of moving light, live creatures, and organic things. British born and based in New York, where he began exhibiting in 1985 to immediate acclaim, he has created photograms in color as well as the black and white, silver gelatin print medium. His series featuring newborns lolling on their backs in shallow baths is particularly well known. Seen as if from below, the infants look safe yet precarious, levitating in rings of water, haloed by saturated color born from the chemical properties of cibachrome paper. Fuss’s work is usually compared to early 19th century “sun print” photograms rather than cameraless darkroom techniques that evolved under the influence of Bauhaus innovators in the early 20th century. It’s easy to see how his affinity for the natural world puts him close in spirit to 19th century practitioners who exposed sensitized paper holding plants and laces to the sun, but technically, his darkroom photograms have more in common with Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray than William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins. Fuss, trained as a commercial photographer prior to his art career, is heir to the visual culture and industrial-commercial photographic apparatus of the 20th century. The hot and cool logic of his work reflects this. His synthesis of a knowing, willful innocence and the visual syntax of industrial perfection has given his work its contemporary edge.
Fuss’s exhibition now on view at Cheim and Read (his second with the gallery) takes his work in an ambitious new direction full of autobiographical imagery and personal metaphor. The show as a whole is really an installation in three parts, which culminate in a 3D work that changed during the exhibition.
The gallery’s front room is ringed with 105 portraits of Fuss as a young boy, ages 1-11, printed on oval-shaped, enamel plaques about the size and shape of a cupped palm. This type of object from a bygone era was designed to adorn a gravestone with the image of the deceased. Conceived as one work entitled “Adam Fuss, 1961-1973,” the plaques allude to the ephemerality of childhood and (perhaps unwittingly) the customization of retail manufacturing processes. They are a sweet, tender, and very melancholy portrait of the artist as well as a tribute to the person(s) who photographed him.
Fuss lines the main gallery’s long walls with mirror-surface daguerreotypes of human skulls. At opposite ends of this large room, two silver gelatin photograms face off: shadows of a child’s arms reach up into the picture plane in one of them, while a mature male profile sporting a robust erection is featured on the other. Both have been treated by a special process to make the white surface area of the image turn silver. The drama let loose in this room is heartfelt without being subtle, and the prices are commensurately high.
In a separate small gallery, Fuss presents a sculpture entitled “Adam Fuss, circa 1965” (2003). Rendered in silicone , a life-like nude replica of the artist as a boy of 11 stands on a refrigerated pedestal with a generator humming nearby. He seems a bleak ambassador from the outer limits of wishful photographic verisimilitude or a rented lab specimen. With visitors clustered around him at the opening, the pudgy, chilly little blond boy commanded curiosity and attention. The walls around him were hung with beautiful large format color prints of butterfly chrysalides depicted in isolation on black backgrounds. The silky opalescent membranes of the pods invited thoughts to linger over the caterpillar within this casing, transforming from humdrum crawler to a luscious flying creature who will spend its brief life among fragrant blooming flowers dusted with brightly colored pollen and sun warmed nectar. A week or so into the exhibition, Fuss’s past self had accumulated a hefty three inch frost around his birthday suit thanks to the slow work of the external generator. It’s an eccentric riposte to the frozen moment of time that photography once represented.
Caught perhaps between a desire to express his experience of life on one hand and rekindle the 19th century sensibility of magic and wonder surrounding photography on the other, Fuss’s new work also expresses an unshakable awareness of the harshness of life these days. He takes true stories from life through varied interpretations of “realism” including mirrors, photographs, metaphors, sculpture, medical-purposed refrigeration, and along the way invokes 19th century Romantic tropes in contemporary terms. If the idea of “spirit” in photography still has currency, this visual autobiography, as public in scale as it is intimate in feeling, reflects the quicksilver shadow of one 21st century soul.
NOTE ON PHOTOGRAM: The photogram dispenses with cameras and negatives by using only light sensitive paper and a light source casting shadows or reflections on the support surface. This has been done outside in sunlight and indoors in the darkroom with artificial light. Images created this way are sometimes called “cameraless” and “unique” photographs.