The contemplation of women, as seen through the interlocking history of painted portraiture, photography and film, constitutes the most recent project of the 90-year-old French visual essayist and recluse known by the name of Chris Marker.
In a show taking up both Peter Blum SoHo and Chelsea galleries, over 200 photographs, made from digital images taken with a surreptitious camera by Marker on the Paris Metro during 2008-2010, record the appearance, attire and immediate surroundings of mostly female passengers. Marker records their beauty, reverie, anxiety, wariness and more with sympathetic ardor tinged with voyeurism.
Each image is mounted frameless on a piece of sheet metal that is raised about half an inch from the wall, making it look less like a work of art and more of an advertising image or information card such as one would see next to something more substantial in a museum or institution.
The longer each image is contemplated the greater the complexity that reveals itself, most often a kind of doubling or rhyming with other unsuspecting passengers, advertising that contains images of the bodies and faces, and often the repetitious framing and reframing that constitutes the visual life of the metro in motion.
This series of photographs, the first Marker has produced in color, have been manipulated via various computer programs, but they still have the effect of quick clicks from a cell phone camera. He has long been on the forward edge of whatever computer and imaging technology has developed and may have adjusted them to create the slightly washed out fluorescent light effect in the images that often overexposes certain light-reflecting surfaces. It takes away any sense that one is perusing a composed picture. The predominantly blurred edges of the figures and their surroundings give an effect of movement, underlining the continuity of location.
These manipulations simply make the images seem rawer, and as the viewer moves from one panel to the next, more implicated in an involuntary intimacy both with the subject and the sneaky author. Luckily, it has a warming effect, moment to moment, they can be profoundly moving.
Marker is nothing if not soulful, but he is equally a wry, persistent interrogator of the medium. A willingness to dispense with artiness in favor of the quotidian have made him a favorite of contemporary artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and an influence on such artists as James Coleman.
For example in the color photograph Untitled # 78 (2008-10), a woman is slumped into a metro seat with a bleached out aura coming off of her arms, forehead and the chrome bar of the seat behind her, while her image is doubled in the window reflection. The picture is taken from above so the woman is descending, accentuating forward momentum. As with all the pictures, a mini-narrative is implied, much the way we make up own stories while looking at fellow subway passengers.
Markers' statement for the show describes the images as encounters with the models of famous painters "still among us." In the SoHo gallery is a back wall of four photos that depart from the dominant sense of verité by pairing women from the metro with photoshopped examples of paintings such as Leonardo's Mona Lisa, whom he places next to a woman of African descent, Ingres' Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere, paired with a young Caucasian woman with alabaster pallor, and two others.
But Marker is not about to let the viewer forget how the information reaches us. The train seems to be the silent partner here, the train being the premier reflexive event and traditionally how film referred to itself within itself. The film-object-ribbon is threaded through the projector, like the train on its track. It is omnipresent through the series of pictures, arranged like film stills, Marker's touchstone, along with compelling portraits of women. As the fictional narrator in Markers' 1982 filmic-essay-masterpiece San Soleil observes, "All women have a built in grain of indestructibility. And men's task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible."
Chris Marker, "Passengers," Apr. 2-June 4, 2011, at Peter Blum SoHo, 99 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10012, and Peter Blum Chelsea, 526 West 29th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
JOE FYFE is a New York painter, curator and art critic.