Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Refusal by Jo Longhurst & Bird by Roni Horn

One thing that I enjoy is when I find connections between the works of different artists. Many of you have had the same experience where you are looking through a book and one image or a set of images triggers you to run to the book shelf to find its compliment in another artist.

This recently happened to me while looking through Jo Longhurst’s book The Refusal from Steidl. Immediately it brought to mind a book by Roni Horn called Bird so I thought it was a sign that these two stand alone books be reviewed together.

The Refusal is an artist book/exhibition catalog that is primarily about the un-natural breeding of English Whippet dogs and the relationship between humans and domesticated animals. In her essay On looking and being looked at, Longhurst speaks of the detachment a breeder can feel in choosing a young dog, ‘A proper show Whippet is bred to be looked at. The breeders hope to produce the perfect dog, focusing on body form and fluidity of movement.’ This essay is set at the end of a book that describes the clinical detached view of these animals alongside others where the viewers are prompted to feel an attachment through the animals gaze.

Longhurst employs various strategies in the presentation of this work. The clinical images are presented as grids (rather expected) but others are presented cropped into circles which dot the page either like petri dishes (they are presented after the clinical sidelong photos that immediately bring to mind genetics) or like tondi paintings from the Renaissance. Another series of traditional square photos direct our attention to the aforementioned gaze as the dogs look towards and away from the camera.

It was when I came across a spread of straight-on portraits of four dogs who are staring directly into the camera that instantly brought to mind photos from a recent catalog from Roni Horn called Bird which was published on the occasion of a show at the Hauser & Worth Gallery in London.

Initially it was the formal similarities that drew these two bodies of work together but as I kept looking from one to the other I found them sharing other traits as well.

Horn’s book continues her fascination with Iceland but this time through its birds. Here she has photographed the backs of the heads of many Icelandic fowl and they are presented as pairs on the facing page spreads. In some ways this also continues Horn’s strategy of making two nearly identical sculptures and exhibiting them together but this time the work is infused with a humor that is refreshing for her. I find myself giddy with how funny and absurd the shapes of the bird’s heads are at times. (A similar humorous quality is found in the faces of the birds depicted in the Doubt Box). Add to this a seductive palette of color from the feathers and their patterns and I find myself captivated with interest.

The same happens with Jo Longhurst’s side-long portraits of the Whippets. On a two page spread the book designers present 24 identical photographs of the dogs that show off the elegant drop of their chests, tuck of their stomachs and flow of their hind legs. With this repetition the viewer is invited to notice differences which in this case the most noticeable is that the tails of the dogs in proper “dog show” posture, wind up tucked between their legs. Humorously the tails end up becoming comic phalluses that stand erect or droop towards the ground.

Both of these books challenge my view of photography in that I want to say that it is the object itself that wins out and that the photography is a passive partner. It is known by my readers that I like to "see" the photographer at work in making the photographs just the same as a great novel is as much word choice and structure as the "story." Much of the photography here strikes me as mere documents that stand second to the message. Longhurst's work is the exception as many of the circle photographs are elegant and varied but the main thrust seems to fall into the former category. It may take me a while to accept this approach to the medium but these two titles make trying to read this new kind of book a fascinating task.

Bird is hardcover, approximately the size of an LP record and contains 20 photos. The design is elegant and simple, allowing the square photos to be reproduced at a large scale. Bird includes an essay by Philip Larratt-Smith called Hornithology: Nature's Question Mark which is a wonderful mix of fact and metaphor that has a similar flavor to Horn's text that accompanies the work in Another Water. Bird is co-published with the Hauser & Worth gallery and Steidl.

The Refusal is softcover, small and oblong and is a catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the work at the Museum Folkwang in Germany.

Buy The Refusal at Steidlville

Buy Bird at Steidlville