April 25, 2010

Get it Right

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If the history of the avant-garde movement is any indication, experimental art goes hand in hand with progressive politics. This seems intuitive: For art to be innovative and experimental, it must go against prevailing mainstream values — both commercially and politically. Occasionally, there are exceptions. Sometimes, artists rely on traditional artistic forms to promote progressive values. In using a traditional form, they highlight its irrelevance. But, even rarer is the artist who does the opposite, who uses innovative and experimental approaches to express conservative politics. Les Krims, whose work is featured in The Johnson Museum’s Bodies Unbound: The Classical and Grotesque, is just such an artist.

In last week’s Gallery Talk at The Johnson, Krims explained how he uses fabricated photographs and photographic illusion to expose what he believes to be the hypocrisies and delusions of modern liberalism. Krims, who earned his BFA from Cooper Union in 1964 and his MFA from Pratt Institute in 1967, has taught at Pratt Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology and currently teaches at SUNY Buffalo. His work is satirical, often parodying journalistic photography.

“[I wanted to show that] serious photography could be something other than propaganda inspired by socialist realist art,” Krims said, describing contemporary photography as “intractably moribund.”

Over the years, Krims’ work has faced increasing criticism that, according to Krims, has little to do with the art itself. Instead, critics have labeled his work pornographic, sexist and racist without engaging with the work’s underlying ideas. To avoid this problem, Krims purposely assigns long titles to his works, forcing viewers to grapple with the ideas that go into each piece.

Even with the lengthy titles, it’s not hard to see why Krims’ work is so controversial. Besides being overtly political his work also avoids political correctness — which he sees as a leftist delusion. In the series Making Chicken Soup, Krims figures leftist solutions as “making chicken soup” — seemingly palliative yet worthless from a practical standpoint. More shocking than the underlying message is Krims’ choice of model: his mother, in the nude, as she makes chicken soup.

­But to Krims, the Left is not merely delusional but hypocritical as well. In his Deerslayers series, Krims photographs deer being inspected during the Vietnam War. According to Krims, liberals “demonized” hunters as murderers, neglecting the fact that some people depend on hunting as a source of food — a completely hypocritical view in the context of the Vietnam War. Deerslayers became Krims’ “reaction to that demonization” by animal rights activists and anti-Vietnam protesters. This hypocrisy is carried further in “Leftist American Academics in a Wave Pool Not Celebrating the Failure of Soviet Communism,” which features college students lounging in inner tubes.

As Krims sees it, this hypocrisy has permeated numerous leftist movements, including feminism. In Nude Blackface: In Homage to Al Jolson, Krims critiques feminism. The series features nude women with their faces painted black and responds to what Krims described as “the kind of noise they were making about their lives.”

“[The feminists] were attempting to say that they were just as repressed as black people, which I just didn’t see to tell you the truth … especially since the women in my family were so successful,” Krims said.

The rest of Krims’ work proves even more controversial. In “Ecstasy: Goose-in-Love-with-Boy-in-Love-with-Goose: Rumination Concerning Interspecies and Same-Sex Marriage,” Krims equates same-sex marriage with bestiality. Another work, “I Noticed a Striking Resemblance Between the Teeth of the Lascivious Looking Posing Piece of White Bread, and the Chicklet-Choppers of the Cherubic Caricature of Tiger Woods Miraculously Found Right Next to Him […],” questions reverse racism. The photograph depicts a caricaturist who has placed two of his cartoons — one of Tiger Woods and one of a “droopy-eyed and moronic” white kid — right next to each other, another example of what Krims sees as the failure of political correctness. Yet another controversial photo, “Torture and Confession” compares Christ’s stigmata with the body piercings of today’s youth. According to Krims, these body piercings are “misguided expression” and show “conformity to retrograde beliefs.”

“Even Nazis wouldn’t have thought to do this to a Jew’s body,” said Krims.

In other works, Krims questions contemporary conceptual photography. Some photographs parody conceptual photography as lacking substance. Others mock the sensationalism of the “starburst effect” and other overused and formulaic photographic techniques. In The Incredible Case Of The Stack O’Wheat Murders, Krims emphasizes the dangers inherent in conceptual photography by depicting an obviously fabricated crime scene. As the photograph seems to suggest, viewers should always question the truthfulness of their media sources.

In addition, they should look to those media sources as useful tools. Krims credited improved digital technology and cheaper camera equipment and software for enabling his photographs to develop in complexity. As Krims sees it, photography has undergone a process of democratization. Today, even an amateur can learn to produce technically perfect photographs in hardly any time at all. Photography, as Krims argued, “is as close to a worker’s paradise as any can get.” Indeed, in the Johnson’s marketplace of ideas, there’s room for any opinion — even the most controversial.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg