HAIRY EYEBALL: Will Rogan scores with a canny show of photography at Altman-Siegel, while Hugh Brown whiffs with a bad-boy routine at Robert Koch Gallery
HAIRY EYEBALL In a characteristically poetic passage within 1980's Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes early cameras, given their cabinet-like appearance and precise mechanical innards, as "clocks for seeing." I couldn't shake the phrase while taking in Will Rogan's "Stay Home," an ambiguous smile of a solo show composed of photographs and three-dimensional photographic collages at Altman Siegel.
Taking the measure of time is very much on Rogan's mind, as it was on Barthes' some 40 years ago. A photograph is but an imperfect means of forestalling time's onward march: it offers the present a momentary record of an instant long gone. So too has photography, at least in the nondigital form that Barthes was writing about, become an index of a past medium, and in our current age of Photoshop, an object for nostalgic longing (see the Hipstamatic iPhone app).
Rogan skirts this sand trap even though his practice deliberately engages with 1970s printed matter and evokes a range of photographers from that decade and later, most notably Lee Friedlander and Daido Moriyama's social landscapes, and to a lesser extent, Sherrie Levine's appropriations. The three small sculptural collages of cropped images affixed to painted wood pieces with beeswax even look as if they are from another time. Indeed, it's easy to get distracted by Rogan's mode of address ("hey guys, here are some cool books I found at a yard sale, and look what I came upon while walking to the corner store"), by his work's muted cleverness and calculated arrangement of happenstance, that it can be easy to overlook the substance of what he's saying.
Viewing the Past As it Happens takes its title from a passage in a picture book on astronomy that is itself the subject of the photograph. The book lies open; a picture of a galaxy on the right page. A description on the adjacent page details that what we are looking at, that what astronomers gaze at through their telescopes night after night, is in fact millions of years old. Of course, this also functions as a gloss (as does the photograph's title) on the act of taking a picture: in that moment when we look into the viewfinder, our fingers poised to capture what we see before us, we are in a sense seeing what will become the past.
Two other photographs of educational books, The Elusive Nature of Time and Man Versus Clock: The Unequal Struggle, drive the point home that the photographer's relationship to time is a Sisyphean one, even as the lifted bathos of their titles sends up the self-seriousness inherent to such postulating. Rogan seems to say, "Don't freak out, too much," while simultaneously holding up evidence to the contrary. The detritus that catches Rogan's eye in other pictures — reflective glass shards, a gutter-lodged beer can, a taped-together window, an abandoned sneaker — are corollaries to the amazing sign on the paper shredding business captured in Shredder that reads, "DOCUMENT DESTRUCTION — While You Watch," in light of which "document" starts to read more as a verb than a noun.
With Busts, a series of six magazine pages (covers perhaps?) that have been altered so that only the ghostly white silhouettes of unknown seated subjects remain, Rogan moves from documenting destruction to participating in it. It's hard to tell whether or not the outlines are formed from erasing a prior image or painting over unrelated text, some of which is visible underneath the white. Regardless, the message is still clear: time is on no one's side.
Time will certainly not be on the side of Hugh Brown, who demonstrates in his solo show "Allegedly" at Robert Koch that no amount of skilled workmanship or flawless execution can make up for a paucity of ideas. Indeed, he has but one, and truly, it is more a gimmick than a concept: to remake iconic works of art in his own image.
And how does the artist picture himself? As a chainsaw-wielding bad boy, cutting through the canon and art world pretensions with the power phallus of choice for exploitation filmmakers and ice sculptors. Brown's smash and grab tour through art history includes Diane Arbus (here, the child clenched in rage holds a toy saw instead of a grenade), John Baldessari, Henri Matisse, Barbara Kruger ("I saw therefore I am"), and Roy Lichtenstein, among many others.
Granted, Brown's art is well made and it exhibits a careful attention to the material details of the work it parodies. A "Bruce Nauman" is actually done in neon (surprise, it's a chainsaw). Each work is also credited to the original artist, a parenthetical "allegedly" following their name, as if the dubiousness of what we we're looking at weren't apparent already.
Appropriation is by no means a new game, and many of the artists hijacked by Brown made poaching and quotation central to their own practices. But the art in "Allegedly" lacks any real critical force. It says nothing about the works being pillaged and everything about Brown's estimation of himself. The show is apiece with those postcards that put sunglasses on the Mona Lisa or banana hammocks on Michelangelo's David.
How Brown has managed to convince gallerists otherwise is a mystery that "Allegedly" leaves unsolved. *
WILL ROGAN: STAY HOME
Through No. 6
Altman Siegel Gallery S/F
49 Geary, Fourth floor, SF
HUGH BROWN: ALLEGEDLY
Through Oct. 30
Robert Koch Gallery
49 Geary, SF