The inverted cupcake, the washing machine, the hot-cross bun…these are just three nicknames that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum acquired in the years that followed its unveiling. Yet New York Times writer John Canaday’s quip is perhaps the most memorable for its biting cynicism – “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed”. Fifty-three years on controversy still dogs Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic design with many still contesting that the architecture of the building ultimately overwhelms the art contained within. With this in mind it was an astute decision to showcase the Dutch born artist Rineke Dijkstra’s mid-career survey in the annex galleries of the museum as opposed to the domineering rotunda space. Although this decision has resulted in an awkward fracturing of the exhibition over four floors the more intimate setting of the annex galleries is particularly well-suited to Dijkstra’s oeuvre which is quiet, intimate, and restrained.
This extensive retrospective brings together more than seventy of Dijkstra’s colour photographs and five video works which appear in rough chronological order spanning the 1980’s to the present day. Dijkstra’s body of work emerges from a tradition distinctly indebted to Sander and Arbus and this is evident from her very first series which took bathers – a well-established subject-matter in art history – as its theme. The Beach portraits catalyzed Dijkstra’s rise to fame in the 1980’s as well as introducing a typology which would prevail throughout her entire career – the study of youths at a tender transitional juncture, poised on the cusp of adulthood. Taken from a low vantage point the young people in her Beach portraits look down on the viewer, so despite their timidity exposed by a hesitant look or an unsure posture they are powerful and we are submissive. They are aggrandized by the sheer scale of the prints (almost life size) and in their frontality and monumentality they become almost statuesque, calling to mind a rich art-historical lineage which stretches back and beyond the standing kouroi of Ancient Greece. The most touching among the Beach portraits depicts a young American girl whose heavy make-up and provocative bikini belie her vulnerability as she grasps for the elusive and illusory ideal of all-American perfection. This portrait exemplifies the importance of minute detail in Dijkstra’s practice. The artist focus the viewer’s attention more acutely on the sitter by reducing extraneous information, we study their clothes, their skin, a hair out of place – a process through which we feel as if we come to know them.
Dijkstra is fixated on capturing the moment that a person reveals their true personality, the moment the mask falls and they are unable to mediate between their inner and outer self. Deciding that the most promising opportunity to potentially capture this transient moment would be following a uniquely emotional experience Dijkstra conceived of her portraits of the toreros and nude mothers. In both series the subject’s are physically exhausted and unconcerned with composure – the former having just being involved in a bull fight and the later having just given birth. One mother stands proudly holding her newborn, blood trickling down her leg, in a raw, visceral, almost primitive moment of unashamed and unarmoured emotion. It is interesting to note that the toreros series and the nude mothers are hung so that they face each other in the gallery – a decision that no doubt will lead to accusations of cliche – the male fighter counterpointed by the female Madonna. And perhaps it is slightly reductive to visually connect the sexes when they are occupied in such archetypal roles. However what is really at play here is an investigation into the ability to capture multifaceted emotion. Cliche aside, it can’t be denied that the space the viewer occupies between these two series is one ripe with emotional charge.
Moving through the galleries it becomes clear that Dijkstra’s career has hinged upon two things – sincere personal engagement and the expression of empathy; if we needed any conformation of this it is found in the Almerisa series. Dijkstra first photographed Almerisa in 1994 aged eight when she and her family were seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Dijkstra stayed in touch with Almerisa and took a further six portraits culminating in the final image shot in 2008 depicting a mature Almerisa cradling her own child. It would be misguided to interpret Dijkstra’s uniform stylistic approach as a lack of artistic development; as we can see in this series, as well as others grouped on the same annex level, the artist is now exploring the theme of time and change. The Almerisa series was executed during a period in which Dijkstra was experimenting with video so her interest in capturing the progression of time through several similarly posed shots could be interpreted as a stepping stone between photography and video – her attempt to break from the restrictive nature of photography’s ‘frozen moment’ and approach a more fluid and rounded form of representation. If this is the case it is not surprising that from the mid 1990’s Dijkstra made a decisive turn towards video. The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/ Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1996–97) is a multichannel video installation which shows footage of several youths dancing to techno music. In her now standard modus operandi her subjects are highlighted against a plain white background which amplifies their time-specific fashion as well as the cigarettes/beer they tote like incongruous props in a bizarre one-man show. Dijkstra seems to be using music as a tool to deshroud her subjects, to put them at ease as they bop along to the music momentarily forgetting the presence of the lens. Yet there is something almost voyeuristic in passively watching someone dance. Guggenheim Senior Curator of Photography Jennifer Blessing describes Dijkstra’s work as “surrogate self-portraits” in which she sees elements of her own personality mirrored in her subjects. With this in mind perhaps our feelings of unease arises from seeing ourselves reflected in these young faces, remembering a time when we too were unsure and angst-ridden. And if Dijkstra was striving for a method to simultaneously express varied emotion, it seems she has found it in the medium of video. The success of video here reminds us of one of one of photography’s biggest fallacies – that it is a talisman of the ‘real’. Here we see video is a much more ‘real’ devise – a fitting medium to capture multilayered human reactions and to coax the manifestations of youth.
A section of the upper annex galleries is largely dedicated to Dijkstra’s park portraits. Perhaps most striking among them is one which mirrors Manet’s famous painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Here Manet’s group of french bourgeoisie are reimagined as young teenagers, his basket morphs into rubbish and although the figure in the background of Manet’s iconic painting has disappeared the water has not. Dijkstra’s oeuvre and the history of art seem to enjoy a relationship that extends much further than the usual comparison made between her work and 17th century Dutch portraiture. One of her Beach portraits depicts a young Polish girl whose graceful stance and dreamy gaze is redolent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, in a further Beach portrait a Polish boy’s awkward stance calls to mind Egon Schiele’s contorted forms. These striking similarities could suggest that Dijkstra contrived of her scenes, coaxed her subjects into certain poses and attitudes. However, the artist insists that minimal intervention is key. It’s not beyond the realms to suggest that these parallels are mere coincidence, indeed if these compositions were in fact premeditated it would seem to contradict the very raison d’être of her work. What is certain is that anybody coming to this exhibition bringing with them a knowledge of the history of art will relish the opportunity to draw these and further comparisons.
Yet quoting iconic paintings from the past, whether consciously or unconsciously, is merely an intriguing aside in Dijkstra’s practice. The crux of her success lies in her mastery of portraiture. If ‘character revelation’ is an attainable goal within the genre (which is debatable at best) Dijkstra has gone to lengths to achieve it. Her way of seeing goes far in traversing the exterior to reveal what’s beneath flesh and bone. Indeed her methods and aesthetic seem to situate her in an artistic middle-ground. She does not fully adhere to the conceptual calling like some of her peers such as Thomas Ruff. Dijkstra cannot dislocate from humanity in photography and in this way she is much more traditional. The empathy she extends to her subjects could even be said to align her with documentary photography, a genre long known for a higher moral agenda which typically espouses: empathy, compassion and humanity.
What is on view at the Guggenheim are big photos of small people, normal people deified through the artist’s lens. Intrinsically accessible, Dijestra’s work sees the awkward made heroic and the imperfect made beautiful, hers is an art without artifice.
A Retrospective, 29th June until 8th October, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. www.guggenheim.org
Text: Sarah Marie Allen
Credits: Kolobrzeg, 1992, Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris,© Rineke Dijkstra