Subjective Contexts: Thomas Ruff at AGO
Thomas Ruff: Object Relations at the Art Gallery of Ontario
April 21 to August 2, 2016
317 Dundas Street West (at McCaul Street)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 416 979 6648
Visitors to Thomas Ruff’s last exhibition at David Zwirner in New York this past spring may have been surprised by the latest exhibition of his press++ (2015) print series at the Art Gallery of Ontario. When presented independently, the series was a bit bewildering, but there was some sense of delayed gratification once one understood that they were enlarged, notated press photographs on the subject of space. As part of “Thomas Ruff: Object Relations,” however, the press++ series was preceded by several of his other bodies of work, so that this experimental approach to photography lost its novelty.
That loss would not have felt substantial had the introductory series been stronger. On display in the first gallery were several works that Ruff created upon the museum’s invitation to examine their collection and use it as a source for his process of altering found or appropriated photographic materials. For the photographs in Negative (2014–ongoing), Ruff inverted the light and dark areas of each historical photograph so that the new works appeared to be negatives. The series was effective in framing reversal as a key process for the rest of the show, but the works were otherwise unremarkable, feeling more like a reluctant answer to an uninteresting invitation.
That the prints in the press++ series were made from found newspaper clippings manipulated by Ruff comes as no surprise. Though the show’s curation reduced the novelty of this approach, it also allowed more interesting observations to emerge. In the series of “negatives,” for example, one noticed how Ruff’s manipulations flattened space and disrupted one’s ability to perceive animation (the artist’s body versus a statue). Similarly, in the press++ photographs, one may now notice how the superficial marks on the photographs (such as handwriting, copyright stamps, and remnants of glued paper) stand out as more “real” than the people depicted in the images.
In the next room, the ties between works were far more compelling. The series of inverted photographs continued, but here the original photographs were more visually dense, representing the interior of an artist’s studio. In neg◊artist_01 (2014), for example, an artist rests his right leg on the pedestal of a statue of a female body, whose original white color has been reversed into a deep navy. Her pose mimics his, as her right leg also rests on some other object formed as part of the statue. Additional portraits framed on the studio walls hover around them like ghostly presences. Somehow in these inverted images it is far more difficult to ascertain which bodies are real: the artist gets lost in his studio and becomes an object himself while those statues are imbued with life.
In the center of this room, a display case held several found photographs and objects from Ruff’s collection. Bowers and Lough’s 1909 gelatin silver print Electrocardiograms shows measurements of “fatigue of muscle from repeated single contractions” and “tetanic muscular contractions.” Their wavering lines are scientific graphs, but they appear abstract, as if they were studio drawings in ink made to illustrate how line density could convey the progression of light to dark. Opposite these hung Lucien Walery’s photogravures published in a book, Nus (1923). A naked woman holds several different poses as she lies on carpet; however, the carpet is not a floor but a backdrop, hung from an invisible ceiling and run into the foreground. After noticing this optical shift, one can sense the weight of the model’s body resting on the ball of her raised foot. This is another kind of inversion. In their high contrast of white subject (her skin could be polished marble) with dark ground (the Oriental rug was woven with deep hues), these photogravures are reminiscent of Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg’s photograms, which were, in another parallel, long “buried, filed under the generic heading ‘Nudes'” in Chicago, according to Michael Lobel, writing in Artforum in February. Other photograms appeared in this show, too, on the wall next to the display case: two of Arthur Siegel’s 1944 works. They do not depict bodies, but as photograms, none have any compositional negative. They relate well to Ruff’s inverted photo series, in which a false negative is created in lieu of the original.
The tension between surface and depth continues in the next room with Ruff’s Sterne (“stars,” 1989–92) series. Each print is an enlarged section of a negative from the European Southern Observatory in Chile depicting clusters of stars. Made larger than a human body, they echo the vastness of the galaxy. In their black depths, the viewer can see herself as well as the other galaxies hung on the opposite wall. Any artist who has dabbled in film photography or paid attention to the show’s thread of negatives might connect these images with dust on a negative. In any case, Ruff’s evident interest in revealing the apparatus behind photographic prints seems to be what links the Sterne series to the 2003 series Maschinen (“machines”) also occupying this room; all images are product photography from 1930s Germany in which, as the didactic asserts, the “close relationship between functional and artistic photography” is highlighted. In each image, a background curtain or veil of smoke focuses the viewer’s attention on the pastel machine to be sold. As with most advertising strategies, the function of these machines becomes less important than the fact that one should want them.
Indeed, Ruff mimics the product photographer’s intent to remove “extraneous” information when he attempts to remove the context from press photographs or re-display found objects. If Ruff is right, the most effective contemporary veils are those that separate image from text, art from media, and object from time.