Over the course of his career, Aaron Siskind was primarily associated with two organizations, and they serve as a kind of shorthand for the bodies of work the photographer produced. At the Photo League in the 1930s, he took socially conscious documentary photographs, heading up the team that produced the "Harlem Document," one of the projects initiated by that organization to document urban neighborhoods.
In the 1940s, his photographs became increasingly abstract, and while at Chicago's Institute of Design in the '50s and '60s, his work reflected the school's emphasis on experimentation. While continuing to photograph on the street, he was influenced by the focus on spontaneity and accident embraced by the Abstract Expressionists, finding pattern and poetry in fragments of painted words and torn signs, graffiti and peeling paint.
The latter work is the primary focus of "Aaron Siskind 100," Oct. 16-Dec. 6, 2003, at Robert Mann Gallery on 11th Avenue in West Chelsea (a show that is accompanied by a book of the same name published by Blind Spot/PowerHouse). Mann and the Aaron Siskind Foundation have organized several exhibitions celebrating the centennial of Siskind's birth, including a showing of the "Harlem Document" series at the Studio Museum in Harlem and exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, Andrea Rosen Gallery, the Princeton Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The show at Robert Mann is nicely organized, with images from the late '40s and '50s that display Siskind's debt to Abstract Expressionism (a grouping of three images of dripping paint and random markings are explicit homages to Franz Kline) as well as his feeling for the spirit and humor embedded in the mess of urban life.
In the everyday gestures, official and otherwise, scrawled across the city streets, he found serendipitous pairings and unintentionally expressive markings. In New York (1947), an arrow painted on a wall points at a graffiti cartoon of a face with a bulbous nose. The more contemplative Jerome, Arizona (1949), shows a weathered wall, the curling petals of paint looking lovely and almost alive.
Then there are the eight images grouped together on the rear wall of the gallery from the "Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation" series, made in 1954-56: the young divers floating in space, their unfettered physicality captured by Siskind, who at the same time turns them into nearly abstract gestures of joyful abandon.
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Adam Fuss's show of new work, on view at Cheim & Read on West 25th Street, Oct. 16-Nov. 15, 2003, on the other hand, was focused primarily on death and the idea of the memento mori, though there are aspects to the work that are oddly lighthearted, too. Despite a common thematic thread, the show is not exactly esthetically cohesive, but its individual parts are visually compelling.
The first room contains a series of daguerreotypes of skulls, faintly registered on the highly reflective mirrored surfaces, so that the viewer's own face is reflected back along with the apparition of the skull. These are bracketed in the gallery by two large photograms, on the front and back wall, one showing the outstretched arms of a child, the other a young man in profile sporting an erection -- images of vitality punctuating the room of ghostly daguerreotypes.
In the back gallery are three remarkable works, huge pigment prints of butterfly chrysalises. These are gorgeous (and vaguely repulsive, being human-sized images of insects) but the colors -- the translucent green of one of them in particular -- are mesmerizing. Sharing that space is a less-successful life-sized sculpture of Fuss himself as a young boy, his body encased in real ice (generated by an attached refrigeration unit).
This work refers to the installation in a smaller gallery 100 family photos of Fuss himself, from a baby on up to an 11 year old, that have been printed on a series of gravestone cameos, which are white enamel ovals. With his unruly mop of curly blond hair, Fuss was a cute child -- he was certainly much-photographed -- but the idea, of metamorphosis and the fluidity of identity, is more interesting than its expression in this series.
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A consideration of identity was an inescapable subtext of Mary Ellen Mark's show at Kennedy Boesky Gallery, Oct. 10-Nov. 8, 2003, with an accompanying book published by Aperture, given that her subject was twins. Mark went to the Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, in 2000 and again in 2002 and photographed identical twins standing side by side. The idea of one's double so clearly visualized, and in so many guises, has a certain inherent fascination, and in most cases, the differences between the twins, if there are any, are subtle, slight asymmetries which work in Mark's favor esthetically.
The inevitable comparison is to Diane Arbus' famous 1967 photo of identical twins, and while it's not entirely fair (there's only that one twins picture by Arbus), it is relevant in the way that Mark's photographs, blown up so large (they are 20 x 24 in. Polaroids) and with her subjects so formally posed, exaggerates their "freakish" qualities. Add to that the way many are dressed -- two older gentlemen in the Twins jerseys, or two women in the beauty pageant gowns, sashes draped over their shoulders labeling each of them a "Queen" -- and they seem odd and unfamiliar.
The accompanying documentary in the back gallery made by Mark's husband, Martin Bell, in which the twins talk about being twins in a very middle class way, inevitably normalizes the subjects, but the intensity of the bond demonstrated in the video creates its own sense of distance. Despite spouses and parents and children and friends, most seemed to feel, as one of the twins said of his brother, "I always say, let us take our last breaths together."
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"Are We There Yet?," Mark Mann's show of digitally manipulated photo-based works at Laurence Miller Gallery on West 57th Street, Oct. 16-Nov. 26, 2003, is a riff on the various American recreation destinations depicted in vintage postcards from the 1960s and '70s. The ideal of the family vacation -- the escape, the fresh air, the breathtaking sights, the family bonds to be strengthened -- is subverted by Mann in these exaggeratedly pixilated images in muted 1970s oranges and greens.
A mother and her children sit on a log, admiring the view, in Log Jam, but it turns out that they're sitting in a logging camp, and what they're looking at is only more logs, as far as the eye can see, crowding dangerously up against them. A boy stands alone in a motel room in Screen (2001); dressed for the pool, he stares dully at a TV screen, as if waiting for a missing parent to return. Mann deftly captures both the anticipation and the boredom of being a child on vacation in a motel room, but he also injects a satisfyingly poisonous thread of anxiety into the images.
A crowd of people march down a road lined with Redwoods in Long Highway (2003): the woods are beautiful, but there's a sense of cult-like acquiescence to the whole thing. Mann has a light touch, and though the images are laced with irony, enough of a genuine sense of nostalgia remains to inspire affection for his lost and wandering subjects.
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Family, and memories of a much more personal nature, are the subject of half of the double bill at Julie Saul Gallery, which includes Bill Jacobson's moody, suggestive color photographs of empty city streets and lone figures in dark rooms, and a terrific show of the work of the late Darrell Ellis, "Family Distortions" (both shows are on view Oct. 17-Nov. 29, 2003).
Ellis, who died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 33, created in his short career a moving, disturbing series of images of his own family, and these are on view here. Ellis's father, a postal worker and former professional photographer, was killed by a police officer in a case of mistaken identity a month before Ellis was born. After Ellis's mother gave him a cache of family photographs his father had taken, Ellis began working with them, projecting his father's negatives onto Styrofoam molds, then re-photographing those projections, and further manipulating them by tearing or employing elements of collage.
From the raw material -- portraits showing a happy middle class African American family in the 1950s in Harlem and the Bronx -- Ellis created an anguished exploration of identity, memory and relationships. The particular distortion of some, like Untitled (Aunt Connie and Uncle Richard), in which the bottom is wider than the top, means that they seem to lean away from the viewer, resisting access, and the faces of the ultimately unknowable subjects in Untitled (Laure Easter Sunday) and Untitled (Laure and Mother) are blocked out entirely.
A posthumous retrospective of Ellis's work was organized in 1997 by his friend Allan Frame at Art in General, but this smaller sampling is well worth seeing.
JEAN DYKSTRA is a New York-based arts writer.