After looking hard at Sharon Lockhart’s work for more than 10 years and failing to get what numerous high mucky-muck curators, big-deal museum people, powerful gallerists, and major critics and theoreticians—some of whom have called this artist “insightful,” “ingenious,” and “inspired”—admire, I have decided that often there’s nothing in Lockhart’s work to get. Sometimes the art world, presented with a vacuum, overinterprets it or assumes that something that says nothing must say something—why else would all these other important people be saying otherwise? Lately, I think this inflation is going on around Roni Horn’s photographs of her niece. After a while people are just too embarrassed to admit that maybe there’s nothing there.
Lockhart’s work is not always so vacant. Sometimes she can be excellent. Her quasi-structuralist, Michael Snow–like film Goshogaoka, of a Japanese girls’ basketball team warming up, was a fascinating extension of process art by way of Merce Cunningham. And her early setup photographs of children were striking for how unsentimental yet honest they were. But “Pine Flat,” Lockhart’s current humdrum exhibition, finds her following up on her latent weakness for passing off hollow theatricality as containing real meaning. The sad fact is that “Pine Flat” is all subject matter and no content.
The three essayists in the slick, thick, handsome catalog argue that Lockhart “embraces ambiguity,” that her work is “exceedingly generous,” that she was “engaged with the community,” and that her pictures exhibit “empathy.” In reality, Lockhart is just another photographer who goes someplace—a park, a foreign country, a dicey neighborhood, a club, or in this case a small California town—and proceeds to take anthropological pictures of whoever is there. Almost inevitably, these photos are little more than expensive trophies all but devoid of psychology, complexity, or insight, let alone ambiguity, empathy, or engagement.
The backstory to “Pine Flat” is that Lockhart “rented a cabin by a creek to escape the unforgiving pace of urban life.” This cabin was in Pine Flat, a town of 300 about 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the gorgeous foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Over four years Lockhart befriended some of the local children and produced 19 medium-size photographs of them (each in an edition of six with two artist’s proofs), as well as Pine Flat, a two-and-a-half-hour film that debuted at Sundance and was screened at Lincoln Center last week.
Sixteen of the photos are on view at Gladstone. All are quite static and follow a pre-approved photographic formula: Subjects are always placed in the center of the frame, settings are constant, and lighting doesn’t vary much from shot to shot, nor does scale or camera angle. Each child is pictured against a dark background on a gray cement floor. All the kids are made to appear about the same size. A few wear sandals, a couple don T-shirts, some are in shorts, one is outfitted in camouflage pants, another has a cowboy hat, and a pair look to be dressed in motorcycle outfits.
The problem is that the art world almost always falls for this format, assuming that something is being revealed in this severe singling out. The great August Sander used this reductivist structure to peer into the very heart of a nation. Lockhart simply conforms to the prescription without adding or revealing very much. The results are as generic as ads in a fashion magazine and resemble Rineke Dijkstra’s similarly empty pictures of children in the Berlin Tiergarten. Far better examples of what Lockhart is trying to do were produced by Mike Disfarmer, who took pictures of Arkansas locals in the 1940s; Wendy Ewald, who has been working with communities of children since the 1970s; Judith Joy Ross, who makes images of single subjects; and Dijkstra, who photographs adolescent swimmers.
In addition to the 16 photos, two 10-minute film clips are screened continuously. There are 12 clips in all, so to see the entire film—which I’m told is more intriguing than the clips on their own—you must go to the show six days in a row (I have yet to see a single return visitor in my many trips to the gallery). Each clip depicts one or more kids doing something or nothing in the surrounding area. Each section has a blunt, artsy title. There’s “Hunter,” in which a boy sits with a gun in the woods; “Kissing,” which depicts two couples kissing in the grass; “Bus,” which shows a boy waiting for a school van; and “Searcher,” which depicts a lovely snowstorm in the woods as an offscreen kid hollers, “Ethan, where are you?” Writers on the film make much of this “line of dialogue” and assert that it is haunting and scary. It is not. It’s just one kid calling to another.
According to the gallery, Lockhart “focused on the community’s youth and the experience of American childhood,” and “interacted directly with the children living amidst the picturesque landscapes surrounding the hamlet.” As much as I respect her, the bottom line is that Lockhart rented a place in paradise, met some of the white kids there, and took their pictures. These pictures have nothing whatsoever to do with “American childhood” and evince very little real interaction. After thinking about this show I find myself wondering: Did you hear the one about the photographer who went into the wild and brought back something tame?
Francis Cape, 54, long a maker of lovingly crafted, almost Shaker-like minimal-architectural installations involving handsome walls of perfectly made and painted wainscoting, is trying to get art to do one of the things it was intended to do 10,000 years ago: Act as a balm. Last November, two months after Hurricane Katrina, Cape went to New Orleans for a show of his work at the Louisiana State Museum. While there he photographed the flooded middle-class neighborhoods of Gentilly and St. Roch. Although the neighborhoods weren’t completely devastated the destruction was still catastrophic.
For this ethically, elegantly resonant exhibition, Cape framed these pictures and installed them around the Murray Guy space in Chelsea. We see broken front porches, torn-apart doorways, silted-over driveways, smashed walls, holes in roofs, mildewed interiors, dead trees, stained fences, broken staircases, peeling paint, and wrecked cars. It’s America as ghost town, war zone, and apocalypse.
If all Cape did was take some pictures and put them up, his work could be called opportunistic. What makes this way more than news is that Cape has hung these pictures over a wraparound installation of his beautifully constructed wainscoting. The woodwork is painted a lulling shade of sandy ocher. The paint is burnished and satiny. This gesture—based on care, craft, attention to detail, and time—in such close proximity to things torn away in an instant has a soothing psychic effect and is a way of saying a sort of material prayer for all the loss. Cape is foregrounding something that has probably always been in his work. But never so movingly as now.