On the Scene

On the Scene
Art Institute of Chicago: Bucksbaum Gallery in the Modern Wing
September 19, 2009 – January 24, 2010

Jason Lazarus


The Art Institute of Chicago’s Photography Department is pleased to present the third installment in a series devoted to emerging photographers–On the Scene. On view in the Bucksbaum Gallery in the Modern Wing (G188) through January 24, 2010, this latest On the Scene installation highlights new bodies of work by contemporary photographers Jason Lazarus (American, b. 1975), Wolfgang Plöger (German, b. 1972), and Zoe Strauss (American, b. 1970) . Of the three artists featured in this exhibition, Plöger and Strauss will enjoy their Chicago museum premier in On the Scene.

“On the Scene focuses on artists who are pushing the boundaries of photography, engaging that medium’s tradition in new and different ways,” said Katherine Bussard, curator of On the Scene and assistant curator of photography at the Art Institute. “We have one artist who’s working with found photographs, another who made photographs in Chicago just last month, and yet another who’s actually working with film but no camera.”

Jason Lazarus: Recordings (“Big Storm” January 30th, 1967, Mom) (2009)
After Jason Lazarus inherited a family snapshot with an inscription similar to the title of this installation, Recordings (“Big Storm” January 30th, 1967, Mom), he began frequenting flea markets and thrift stores to amass an archive of such pictures. Because today most photographs are made and stored digitally, existing in virtual albums or tagged in on-line social networks, snapshots seem to be increasingly durable objects. The antiquated, handwritten inscriptions on the backs of these photographs, along with stamps from resale vendors, and the occasional detritus from the original scrapbook context, suggest possible histories and narratives that are multiplied when “read” with the pictures hanging nearby.

The subtitle of this work comes from the inscription on the back of the image at the center of the piece. The installation grew from that first snapshot, as Lazarus carefully placed pictures to create conversations based on the text, tonality, and spacing of surrounding photographs. He made adjustments as necessary by stepping back to consider the whole wall. Lazarus described this process as a painterly act, but it is also one that is deeply engaged by and indebted to everyday language. Importantly, that language is conveyed on the backs of found snapshots that belong to no one and everyone–they are simultaneously abandoned and suggestive of a once-widespread photographic practice. The dates of the photographs comprising this installation range from 1899 to 1996, beginning roughly a decade into the personal snapshot craze initiated by Kodak and continuing up to the threshold of the digital era.

Wolfgang Plöger: Make No Mistake About This (2008)
While doing internet image searches for the term “death row,” Wolfgang Plöger found the text of inmates’ final statements. The title of this work is an excerpt from one such statement, which remains intense even when disconnected from the crime and its perpetrator. Although there is a long tradition of artists using quotation as part of their own creative act, Plöger wanted to incorporate these last statements into his work without merely offering them as text to read. Instead, he handwrote the statements on lengths of film celluloid which allowed them to be projected as flickering calligraphy on the wall. The projectors–operated with pulleys in place of take-up reels–create constantly moving stretches of film that could careen through the surrounding space.

Make No Mistake About This violates assumptions and boundaries once thought common to lens-based media. No camera, light, or chemistry was necessary for Plöger to make the film. In the traditional and historic understanding of photography or film, what appears before the lens is an index of someone’s or something’s presence in front of a camera. Here only the handwriting on the film might guarantee that it was the artist who made these marks. As the last statements race and loop throughout the gallery, their speed and scale compel viewers to strain to make sense of glimpses of language that might convey error, confession, or apology.

Zoe Strauss: Week of the Perfect Game (2009)
Zoe Strauss excels at making tough, intimate photographs of cities and the people who dwell in them. The Art Institute invited Strauss to engage Chicago for one week this past July, and her site-specific installation Week of the Perfect Game suggests what it meant to be in Chicago at that time. In a national sense, Chicago was the hometown of Barack Obama, then just six months into his presidency; a finalist in the bid to host the 2016 Olympics; and the closest metropolis to Gary, Indiana, the birthplace of the recently deceased pop icon Michael Jackson. On a local scale, the city was also the location of an ongoing hotel-workers’ strike, the annual Pierogi Fest, the home of newlyweds, and a commemoration of a teen gunned down on its streets. Most exceptionally, on the afternoon of July 23, Chicago witnessed a rare event when the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game of baseball; fewer people have accomplished this feat than have orbited the moon.

Strauss’s equal engagement with all these scenes allows viewers to wind from one stark, frontal composition to another, each suggesting a perhaps otherwise unnoticed bit of urban life that she recorded while roaming south from the Loop to East Chicago and Gary. As is almost always the case with street photography, the act of editing was paramount. With this selection, Strauss crafted an open-ended and all-encompassing narrative set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan.

The artists in On the Scene will be discussing their works at the Art Institute during the run of this exhibition. Jason Lazarus will be speaking about his work on Thursday, October 8. Zoe Strauss will appear on Thursday, November 12, followed by Wolfgang Plöger on Thursday, November 19. All lectures will take place during free hours in the museum’s Price Auditorium at 6:00 p.m.

On the Scene is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and is curated by Katherine Bussard, Assistant Curator of Photography.

Art Institute of Chicago