Review: Lydia Panas at Foley Gallery (plus some thoughts about reviews)


Exhibition Reviews


Regular readers of this blog I’m sure will be familiar with Lydia Panas’ work (if not, find my conversation with Lydia here). The Mark of Abel work is now on view at Foley Gallery (until April 20, 2010; click on the image above for a larger view).

It is always exciting for me to see work I’m quite familiar with hanging on a gallery wall. Rarely, if ever, does it look just the same as on the computer screen. It does happen that it looks worse, and of course, that’s always disappointing. Usually, it looks better - as in Lydia’s case, and part of the fun is to experience just that.

It is tempting to think that differences in size and/or between an image that reflects light and one that is backlit are responsible for whatever it is that creates that experience. But it seems to me that trying to pin down the reason(s) ultimately is a futile endeavour, and certainly one that is taking away a lot of the essence of the experience. Or maybe I’m just not that kind of critic.

Maybe talking about photography and its qualities is a bit like talking about wine and trying to describe it, adding some sort of rating to it. Does anyone really know what the following means? “It has a dark garnet color and a complex nose of boysenberry, truffles, wild game, soy and black pepper. On the palate, the wine has a silky mouthfeel and an elegant, long finish with a slight tannic grip.” (source - picked at random) Fruit mixed with wild animals (which might or might not have antlers) and some sort of insanely expensive mushroom, plus soy - hmmmmmm, sounds delicious. And what does the difference between a wine rated 91 and 93 mean? But phrases like “silky mouthfeel” (I had no idea “mouthfeel” was a word!) - is that so far from what we see in a lot of art reviews?

When I go to an art gallery what I typically watch out for is the combination of what you could call my gut reaction and my intellectual response. This, I need to add, puts a handicap on work I know: while my gut reaction will respond directly to the work, my intellectual response works against the background of all the various thoughts I’ve had in my head before I went through the gallery’s door. My gut typically is as opinionated as my brain (no surprise there, I suppose), and I’ve had many exciting experiences when they clashed (they always end up on good terms, so there’s never any need to worry), and plenty of not-so exciting ones when they just agreed with each other.

But so much of art viewing is based on what we expect, isn’t it? Maybe I’m not following debates carefully enough, but people never seem to admit the following: they expected something, and they got it confirmed. Maybe that’s because writing “I went to the show by XY thinking it must surely suck, and boy, it did!” makes you sound like a total jerk - even though in reality, it could be really insightful! Just think about it! A critic thinks about a show and has some reasons to think a show must be bad, and then it is (that) bad. Doesn’t this mean that the critic is very perceptive? And, in contrast, to read that a critic was really looking forward to a show, to then find that, yes, it was a good show - is that necessarily such a good thing? I can think of lots of cases where it’s a good thing, but there are other cases where it might just point to intellectual laziness (at best!).

I personally usually don’t go to a show thinking/expecting that it will suck or be great (even though it happens occasionally). In Lydia’s case, my predominant feeling was one of curiosity. How would something I had seen online, something I had come to appreciate in not necessarily the most straightforward way, look like on the walls? I had come to like Lydia’s portraits mostly through a couple of them, which - for me - had really stood out, and I had then spent time with the rest, to discover a rich vista.

Seeing the show added flourishes to the vista, with unexpected discoveries here and there, some of which, alas, might really only make sense for me I’m afraid (what kind of useless review is this you might wonder now, and I won’t blame you). But I think that a critic ultimately will fail when she or he is trying to explain everything, because there has got to be some wiggle space left. Writing a review of a show should not be confused with smothering someone with a pillow (again, that’s just me again; I’m sure lots of people will disagree).

I was slightly surprised by the sizes of the prints; somehow I had thought they would be a little bit smaller. I don’t know why I would even think I’d know about the print size. That said, while at first I thought they were slightly overwhelming, they ended up working very well for me.

What I really would like to stress is the visual richness of the work and the connections these group portraits force upon the viewer. They will pull you in, whether you want it or not, and that certainly is something that any photographer can only wish for. The work is also intensely beautiful.

The Mark of Abel - highly recommended.