Friday, May 25, 2007

Two books by Gregory Conniff

Gregory Conniff has an agenda. We have forsaken beauty in our everyday lives and his new catalog of pictures is an attempt to bring that to our attention. Wild Edges: Photographic Ink Prints by Gregory Conniff is published by the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in 2006.

Conniff is hardly a household name. He is an artist that works quietly and may never get his proper fifteen minutes but that is hardly an issue. He is working and those that pay attention may very well be bettered for their attentiveness.

Conniff pursues beauty, as he describes, with an awareness that without beauty in our everyday lives we are evolving in ways that will potentially lead to a loss of fulfillment in our lives. He argues that we are hardwired with a need and that we are being denied that need.

In this day of issue oriented art, beauty is often something that is allowed to enter the work, but an artist that directly searches it out in its classic forms (without irony) is usually considered a kind of dinosaur. Conniff is a dinosaur, he probably wouldn’t take that as a disparaging term and he shouldn’t. These are not groundbreaking, original works featured in this book. They owe a lot to painting and art history and appropriately, he mentions George Innes of the Hudson River School of painters in his essay. But his versions are at times stunning. What I do know is that he is capable of exciting the viewer even though they may, at first glance, feel very familiar with what he is placing before us.

He is, in a sense, accomplishing his mission, but for the strength of his argument, his voice will unfortunately fail to rally the masses simply because we have ignored what he is showing us for so long. Now we need a slap of sterile white box Chelsea art to get our attention. He is much too proper a photographer to do that.

The catalog is very well done if not a bit too small to appreciate the works. I think many people will pass this by because it doesn’t draw enough attention to itself. Conniff had a show of this work at Candice Dwan Gallery in 2006. I missed the show but am intrigued because he has apparently adopted ink on paper digital technologies in his printmaking.

Anyone who may have seen this show, please weigh in, in the comments section.

His older book Common Ground, published in 1985 by Yale University Press, is subtitled An American Field Guide Volume 1. I am really drawn to this book but the subject matter is a little dry for my tastes. If the images weren’t so well made, I would be paying attention. In Common Ground he is photographing backyards that would be familiar to anyone in anywhere, middleclass USA.

“I am drawn to places that have no one overwhelming point of interest, but which seem to glow from generations of human presence.”

By subtitling the book An American Field Guide Volume 1, Conniff is referring to further study and observation of a type of architecture and organization of space in a way akin to bird watching. As we progress further into the book, nature once tamed, now reasserts its control making these spaces an elusive, rare species that needs searching out to see at all.

The book is well printed although it is essentially so “unsexy” in any superficial (packaging) way to entice you into picking it up or off the shelf. Photographers enticed by well done formal games will be more the audience for this.

Book Available Here (Common Ground)

Book Available Here (Wild Edges)