This month we review two very different exhibitions. "Andreas Gursky," with 47 photographs by the German artist, continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, through Sept. 22, 2002. "Contemporary Japanese Printmakers I," 41 works by 11 men and women, is up at Chicago's Walsh Gallery until July 27.
Gursky's photographs at the MCA date from 1984 when he was a student of Berndt and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. Gursky found his subject -- human isolation -- early and spent years shaping his ideas and experimenting with technique before he found a distinctive style.
Gursky's work of the 1980s suggests Caspar David Friedrich as an influence. Friedrich, the early 19th-century German Romantic, painted solitary figures in vast, desolate landscapes and seascapes. Gursky's 6 x 7 ft. Ruhr Valley (1989) shows a lone man standing below a concrete bridge underneath a blank sky. Cable Car, Dolomites (1987) is a view of the Italian Alps with a tiny cable car almost obscured by clouds of mist.
During the '90s, Gursky focused on structures and institutions. The 7 x 14 ft. Paris, Montparnasse (1993) shows a long glass and aluminum apartment building. Gursky manipulated this image to make the building look much wider than it really is and cropped it at both sides to indicate that we have all the information we need. There is little ambiguity or mystery in this work -- what we see is what we get.
To experience the full effect of Gursky's huge, poster-like photographs, we must encounter them in a large space. Produced for museum exhibition, the work loses intensity at a smaller scale. Gursky is a species of performer like Christo, who needs museums along with much support and attention from the art world.
Some of Gursky's most dramatic images present humans in herds, intent upon entertainment or profit. The 7 x 17 ft. Tote Hosen (2000), a photograph of a rock concert in Germany, shows masses of young people -- pure energy -- responding to a stage spectacle. Madonna I (2001) is a 9 ft. tall photocollage of a concert. Its multiplicity of images and colors suggests sensory overload.
Recent photographs, which make heavy use of digital techniques, may indicate Gursky's future direction. Stockholder Meeting, Diptych (2001) shows identical rows of stockholders seated in a darkened auditorium as they listen to executives of a multinational conglomerate. We see the company officers at long desks, which seem to float in front of a mountain landscape. Executives and stockholders inhabit two different worlds. Can they respond to each other -- or the needs of the public?
There's plenty of computer trickery in Sao Paolo, Sete (2002), which purports to show several levels in an underground train station. In this very horizontal image, commuters seem to be standing on balconies as they await their trains. The people in this photograph do not communicate. They are alone together.
Roughly four years ago, Julie Walsh, director of Chicago's Walsh Gallery, visited Japan to look for new work. She found four well-known artists -- Yoshisuke Funasaka, Michiko Hoshino, Tadayoshi Nakabayashi and Tetsuya Noda --showed their work, and subsequently invited them to select seven other artists for exhibition. The result is "Contemporary Japanese Printmakers I," a challenging, absorbing exhibition of work by the printmakers listed above and Takahiko Hayashi, Junko Matsushima, Ryo Saito, Sumihiro Yamaguchi, Teruo Isomi, Shinji Ando and Toshihisa Fudezuka.
Some of the artists produce such Western-style imagery that they could easily be confused with Europeans. Shinji Ando employs bravura draftsmanship and printing techniques to make botanical etchings that recall Horst Janssen. Ando's work is ravishing, but there's nothing very new in it.
Junko Matsushima depicts leaves, stalks and other organic detritus as we might find them on the ground after a rainstorm. His flat, beautifully colored images read from right to left, like traditional Japanese prints. Tadayoshi Nakabayashi provides a different perspective on the landscape with photo transfer etchings and aquatints of weed fields. He places small light-colored rectangles among the plants. These recall calligraphic blocks in Japanese prints.
Ryo Saito produces exuberant, cartoon-like beach scenes with clouds, umbrellas and strange critters on the loose. These silk-screened prints seem to have been developed from small paper cutouts. Saito's crisp, lively images embody a new, non-Western approach to the cartoon.
Toshihisa Fudezuka makes attractive, unpretentious woodblock prints of textured fields with small shapes scattered across them. We should also mention Tetsuya Noda, who exhibits diary pieces with images from his daily life. Diary Sept. 11 '00 comes from a photograph he took of a woman in the subway.
"Contemporary Japanese Printmakers I" is a very rewarding show. We await "Contemporary Japanese Printmakers II" with enthusiasm.