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The Powerful and Powerless

James Casebere, Grandstand (2016) © James Casebere, courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York

BY Christian Viveros-Fauné
art and culture critic

In Must See

James Casebere, Grandstand (2016)

If photographs could talk, this one would declaim, loudly and with great confidence. An ominously lit image of an official grandstand anchored by more than dozen flagpoles and topped with glowering clouds, it depicts the moment before its mysterious occupant climbs onto the stage.

Despite being mute, the photo—on view at Sean Kelly gallery in a show titled “Emotional Architecture”—speaks volumes about another kind of art: propaganda. Among the powerful narratives it channels are George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Philip K. Dick’s alternative-reality fiction The Man in the High Castle (as well as the current award-winning Amazon TV series based on the book) and the “fake news” discussed daily by our current POTUS.

The creator of this picture, American artist James Casebere, has photographed handmade dioramas since 1975. His carefully considered tableaus—derived from both fictional and real spaces—often respond to current events, but they always address the enduring challenges posed by documentary photography. Casebere’s so-called “constructed photographs” are primarily concerned with using the medium as a means of apprehending (or misapprehending) the world. As the artist once told Time Magazine: “I am interested in how photography creates and reconstructs reality.”

Despite the incredible verisimilitude built into Grandstand, this image, like all of Casebere’s photographs, essentially constitutes an elaborate fiction made convincingly unreal. A dramatically lit miniature handmade from modest materials like cardboard, colored paper and Styrofoam, the image invites the viewer to experience a facsimile of reality made uncanny.

Based on a hieratic view of the Nazi party’s tribune constructed at Nuremberg in 1935, Casebere recreates the upper section of the massive Zeppelinfeld as designed by Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s favorite architect. The opposite of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935), Grandstand is a masterpiece of anti-propaganda.


Richard Mosse, Moria in Snow (2017)

Richard Mosse, Moria in Snow (2017) © Richard Mosse, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Most black and white photographs reduce the image to its fundamentals: subject, composition and light. No color exists to dazzle or distract the eye, so the camera forces the photographer to clearly identify his or her basic building blocks. This photograph, on the other hand, automatically reduces its subjects, humans included, to their basic biological essence: their heat signature. It is taken with a thermal imaging camera developed for weapons targeting and surveillance.

Cameras like the one Mosse “misused” to take this picture—it’s on view at Jack Shainman Gallery until March 11 in an exhibition titled “Heat Maps”—are sanctioned as weapons under international law because of their ability to see at distances of up to 30km. The computer-generated images they produce are highly detailed and are designed to register relative heat differences. Conversely, this makes the camera the perfect instrument to document the human costs of war, global warming and mass migration.

Moira in Snow depicts an overcrowded refugee camp in Lesbos during a lengthy cold spell that swept across Greece earlier this winter. According to one international observer, the majority of the 3,500 refugees living in the camp endured sub-zero temperatures while living in tents. Last month, three people reportedly died in the camp because of harsh conditions. Mosse’s photograph registers the camp’s deep freeze in charcoal hues while portraying queues of refugees’ radiantly haloed in alabaster light.

In spite of its brutal function, the camera produces its own highly aestheticized monochrome images. Human bodies are recorded in glowing tones while disclosing a living, breathing circulatory system that, alternately, identifies potential targets for violence or surveillance. Notably, the picture owes its precise Boschian detail to the camera’s color-blindness. Every surface is recorded with a sharpness and resolution that can only be called haunting.


Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Portrait of a Man (around 1630–35)

Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez), Portrait of a Man (ca. 1630–35). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A portrait of a handsome mustachioed man captured in mid-thought, this picture—only recently reattributed to Velázquez and now hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s terrific exhibition “Velázquez Portraits: Truth in Painting” until March 12—has literally been a work in progress for more than 200 years.

The portrait’s first recorded appearance is in the 19th-century, when it was purchased by the bastard son of England’s King George II, Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn, who bought it believing it was by Anthony van Dyck. From there it changed hands and attributions several times until it came into the possession of legendary dealer British Joseph Duveen in 1925. Ever the entrepreneur, he sold the painting to American collector Jules Bache, but not before darkening the painting to make it look more “Old-Masterish”.

By the time the painting entered the Met’s collection in 1944 it had been duly ascribed to Velázquez. The attribution didn’t take, though, and the work was soon downgraded to merely “workshop of Velázquez.”

In 2009, with the removal of yellowed varnish and some retouching, the picture finally revealed itself to possess, in the museum’s words, “all the hallmarks of Velázquez’s mastery”. Besides providing a case study in the ways critical opinion can alter—or be manipulated—over time, the portrait also provides a perfect alternate title for the Met’s current exhibition: Truth in painting?

Whether one does or does not accept the idea that the painting is indeed by Velázquez—and this critic is sufficiently impressed by the portrait to believe it is—it’s hard not to be bowled over by this nearly 400 year-old canvas. The painting is a sketch, rapidly achieved, yet lively in a way that brooks few comparisons. Its unique concentration can be summarized in a single phrase: the look of looking.