Strangers Seen Through a Telephoto Lens
BEAT STREULI: Bruxelles Midi
Murray Guy Gallery
JESPER JUST: It Will All End In Tears
Perry Rubenstein Gallery
A version of this article appeared in the New York Sun, October 19, 2006
Swiss-born, Dusseldorf-based artist Beat Streuli rose to prominence in the early 1990s for his work in color photography and video. Mr. Streuli’s abiding theme is the candid portrayal of sophisticated strangers who move about in far-flung, cosmopolitan cities. His distinctive portfolios ingeniously combine contemporary modes of urban advertising and photographic portraiture with traditions of street photography. Mr. Streuli’s strong international record of museum exhibitions and major architectural commissions attests to a widespread interest in increasingly sensitive subjects such the changing demographics of the public sphere and personal privacy within it. But his work is also at home in intimate gallery spaces, such as Murray Guy Gallery.
“Bruxelles Midi” (2006), as installed there, consists of two related projects in still imagery and video. The sun-drenched pedestrians featured in the work passed through a predominantly immigrant Muslim neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium sometime in 2005 (presumably at mid-day, as “midi” means noon.) The almost full-figure, larger than life-size portraits are rendered with great clarity in a shallow depth of field. The 40-foot-long installation, comprised of inkjet prints on paper, wraps around most of the south gallery. The gallery describes the medium as “photographic wallpaper.” True enough, the printed panels are unframed and glued directly to the gallery walls.
If this frieze-like crowd advancing toward the viewer recalls mass media images of sports figures or runway models, that impression may be due to Mr. Streuli’s telephoto lens. A photo-journalist’s use of a telephoto lens within a predominantly Muslim community could evoke strong reactions; but even the artistic use of such equipment implies commentary on surveillance practices in contemporary society. Like a photo-journalist, Mr. Streuli comments upon the photographer’s potential to witness, interpret, and even shape actual events at the time of the shoot. Yet these are not documentary images tied to time and place, but rather artistic images that mimic documentary forms. The artist’s editing of this project was consistent with his work in Sydney, Bangkok, and other cities, as viewers familiar with his previous projects will immediately recognize. Mr. Streuli’s method is to make repeated visits to a specific location in a city and shoot, from a discrete distance, people who pass in front of his fixed camera. From these multiple shoots, he edits a portfolio. He has said that he tends to depict youngish, often stylish urbanites. They often appear as isolated figures set within strong contrasts of light and shadow, shallow focus, and intense color.
A three-screen video projection, “Porte de Flandre” (2006), is projected on three walls of the north gallery. For this project, video cameras fitted with telephoto lenses were trained on a Brussels tram stop. Pedestrians linger, then disappear. The camera never moves, and as its focus remains fixed upon the human subjects, the motion of cars and trucks introduces soft-edged sliding screens behind and in front of them. At times, these shapes are allowed create full-frame abstract compositions. Traffic sounds and sirens are occasionally interspersed with snippets of pop music, and sometimes with complete silence. One may not immediately notice that time has been slowed down in the video projection, or that fade-overs and other types of cinematic transitions were introduced. The play of movement often seems to flow from one wall to another. A deft coordination of editorial and aesthetic artifice belies the apparent spontaneity of “Porte de Flandre.”
Three horizontally formatted color prints measuring about 23” x 33” showcase Mr. Streuli’s skill as a portraitist. In one of them, a beautiful young woman in crisp white clothing stands in brilliant sunlight, casting a doubtful glance outside the frame. She appears to be almost spot-lit against deep shadows tinged with red; her head and shoulders anchor the vertical axis of the image. Behind her, a vivid green bar races horizontally between two other figures whose vague torsos are barely distinguishable. Mr. Streuli’s emphasis on the urban individual who is unaware of the camera has been compared to Walker Evans’s famous series of subway riders. At the same time, his preference for stylish individuals isolated within the picture plane brings to mind portraitists such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Mr. Streuli confers a kind of celebrity status on the 21st century figure of Anonymous.
At first glance, the oeuvres of Beat Streuli and the acclaimed Danish artist Jesper Just could hardly be more different. Yet, like Mr. Streuli, Mr. Just has established rather exact stylistic parameters for his single-themed practice. That theme, intergenerational love between two men, is one that he works out in short cinematic projects of great invention. The medium is identified as anamorphic 35-mm, and Mr. Just ’s richly-layered films are presented in darkened galleries fitted for large-screen film projection.
Mr. Just’s films to date have always featured two protagonists, one a young adult (consistenly performed by the actor Johannes Lilleøre) and the other an older man. How much older varies, but always at least 20 years. “It Will All End in Tears” (2006), now on view at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, is a trilogy whose sections are titled “A Little Fall of Rain,” set in a misty botanical garden; “And Dreaming is Nursed in Darkness,” set in a dimly-lit wood-paneled courtroom; and “It Will All End in Tears,” set on a rooftop overlooking the Manhattan skyline at night while fireworks burst above the city. The trilogy features a team of supporting characters who are a performance group known as the Finnish Screaming Men’s Choir. In the first part of the trilogy, they play the part of leering onlookers when the protagonists first meet; in the second, they portray shouting jurors; by the third, their ominous presence has created such tension that a sense of relief combines with alarm as they leap off the roof in one final, stiff gesture. Their dramatic function is reminiscent of the chorus in ancient greek tragedy, and gives “It will All End in Tears” a poignant edginess.
Mr. Just is known for making films about films. He employs cinematic conventions from multiple eras to explore the male psyche — to mold it into new forms, in a sense — while challenging masculine stereotypes. Through his exacting vision as artist, editor, and director of the films’ surreal vignettes, his and his actors’ combined powers unfold together in a memorable tangle of truth and artifice. Although Mr. Just works exclusively with male performers and masculine themes, his films may contribute to a new archetype for the collective unconscious, whose gender is indeterminate.