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Saturday, June 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

American Color

American Color by Constantine Manos. Kouros Gallery, New York, May 9 - June 29, 2002.

Photography is the fraction-of-a-second reply to painting; it records what is, with the influence of the photographer’s bias. It has competed with painting for more than a century. Recently, photography has become a profoundly conceptual medium, the repository of ideas as much as a medium of documentation. It seems to have lost its originally primary role as the technique of visual truth – we are acutely aware, in present times, of how the photographer’s vision and sensibility may be reflected in something as simple as the position of a shot. There is no such thing as objectivity, we are told, only a clutch of variously competing partial truths, dependent on the artist himself. Interestingly, and perhaps because it gives the illusion of impartial truth, artists have increasingly used photography’s reportorial eye to differentiate between the artificial and the real, often blurring both categories. One has only to think of the film stills of Cindy Sherman to realize that she is not only performing a created persona, she is also commenting on the ability of the photo to deliver a seeming truth – Sherman appears to become the image she has constructed.

So it happens that photography’s realism is double-edged, capable of verisimilitude and illusion in the same moment. In the case of Constantine Manos, the artist has turned his attention toward something else: the representation of American culture, whose very existence is tinged – some would say tainted – by a nearly surreal sense of banal unreality. In his photographs of an artificial paradise, the absurdity of the American condition makes itself felt in photos that look like they celebrate the sheer randomness and cowboy virtue of our culture. The question is whether the celebration is honestly meant or is an ironic homage to the disabling vacuity of contemporary American life. In the apparent dispassion of Manos’s art, it would seem that no judgment is being made. Yet the content of the imagery – the beach shots of girls in bikinis, the football players, the bikers – is by implication melancholic, even desperate in its impassive alienation. American Color, the title of Manos’s current show and also of the series of images he has pursued for 20 years now, reviews the democratic experiment not from a political but from a cultural point of view. He says nothing, ostensibly describing the inevitably limited emotional life of a world without a past. Everything that happens in American Color, the collection of photographs published in 1995, looks like it took place yesterday.

Instead of a sense of history – and one remembers that Manos, a Greek American, spent the years 1961 through 1964 working in isolated villages in Greece, where history has become part of the air – there is the materialism of the moment. Cars and ice cream substitute for the past, and for its ability to cite experience within a matrix of comprehensibility. Of course, that sense of newness, the present moment, is also what makes American society as flexible as it is. It also, at least superficially, tends to purge class of its sting. Yet on a deeper level, we know that the problems of class and materialism are intrinsic to the American structure, whose elaboration depends not on thought or intention but rather on an expressionism unconsciously aggrandizing in nature. So there is a giantism whose emptiness remains unsolvable because the culture pretends that events are always for the best – that experience by itself is an end. Consciousness, the awareness of consequence, is rejected for the raw optimism of experience. The meaning does not matter; the physical – not only the sensuous but also the sensual – does. What Manos records is the erotic adventure, the blind grasp of pleasure.

In the current show of pigment color prints at Kouros Gallery, Manos continues his investigation of the variety in American places. There seems to be fewer overtly vulgar images, more of an emphasis on formal control. One picture, “97-9 Daytona Beach, Fl” (1997), consists of a group of young women on the upper left. Dressed in red blouses and black pants, they appear to be clicking castanets for an audience on the upper right. The red stage, which takes up most of the composition, is fronted with a single microphone. The tight mass of performers, their hands raised in the air, looks improbable and more than a little comic – there is a real absurdity to the performance. At the same time, the reds and the blue of the beach sky offer a wonderful contrast in color. And the vertical of the microphone neatly divides the image, lending formal clarity to what is essentially an informal work. In another photo, “98-03 Daytona Beach, Fl” (1998), a boy in a swimsuit, his back turned toward us, rests his elbows on a white wooden rail and looks out to sea. To the left is a pelican, which stands on the same rail; the long line of the beak carries nearly to the center of the bird’s chest. A single wave breaks the surface of the water; its white foam is the only semblance of motion in what most likely could be called a still life. It is a compelling image, made more so by the silent juxtaposition of the boy and bird.

Manos works a lot with shadows; the silhouettes of figures stand in for actual people, yet they fill his photographs with a strong presence. In one striking, large image, “New Orleans” (2000), a shadow of someone fills the right half of the photograph; the left is given over to a red-print shift hanging from a hanger. The shadows behind the dress are more or less right-edged; they fill the image with dramatic importance. A red sill around an open doorway frames the dress, adding even more flair. In the work, “97-101, Daytona Beach, Fl” (1997), a shadow of a woman on a bicycle is cast on a red- and cream-colored wall; to the right of the shadow, next to a large, black pole, is a pay phone, its receiver dangling aimlessly a few inches from the ground. The composition is a successful study in color contrasts, with the stark silhouettes thrown by the biker and column grabbing our attention in an otherwise noncommittal image. In a third image devoted to dark presences, “02-05, Miami Beach, Fl” (2002), two figures, a man and a woman, walk past a car, their black figures much like shadows against a blue and a green wall. In the front, one can make out the glass windows of the car, which seems to throw a shadow between the two people. It is a dramatic presentation, more than slightly mysterious, with an edge to its forms.

I have neglected to speak of the “color” in American Color; it is both a subtle and dominant presence in the works I have described. In the book of earlier images, red predominates; it is seen in the subjects’ clothing, in the commercial signs, in the walls of buildings. Something more subtle takes place in these new images; the contrasts and tonal variations are less extreme, more given over to quiet distinctions. The last image spoken of, taken in near darkness in Miami Beach, is particularly effective, its dark masses given a contour by the failing light reflected off the blue and green walls. The viewer has the feeling that these photographs no longer address the spiritual condition of America; they are formal in the sense that they are mostly about themselves. It would seem that Manos has chosen to focus on a different kind of American reality, in which chance is not subject to the vicissitudes of cultural emptiness but rather the forms and shapes of a vernacular idiom. The images in this show demonstrate an appetite for the visual discrepancies and eccentric conjunctions of American life more than they attempt a reading of colossal and imperial scale. It may be that this is as just a view of America as the caricatures of the early work; one hopes for America’s sake that this is true.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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