Just Looking: Stephen Shore at C/O Berlin Amerika Haus

by RM Vaughan on April 19, 2016 Reviews

Stephen Shore installation view

Stephen Shore installation view

Stephen Shore: Retrospecktive
C/O Berlin Amerika Haus
Through May 22

Stopping in front of a Stephen Shore photograph is like being the horny one in a sexless marriage. It is frustrating, yes, but also strangely comforting, because you always know where you stand.

Shore has been the crown prince of the “snapshot aesthetic” since the early 1970s. As the writer Gil blank so exquisitely phrased it, the draw of Shore’s work is his “spectacularization of the banal”. When Shore emerged in the mid-70s his work was derided for being about nothing and for being a mockery of high-art photography.

And that is where I both part company with Shore and at the same time respect his resilience. He’s been making photographs of nothing much for decades and getting away with it. That is cultural power. And while I may have little use for the actual works, I can’t help but admire anybody who can keep a schtick running for so long.

Like the withholding partner in an affectionless couple, Shore offers his admirers nothing to hold on to, nothing to see as a shared view, nothing to read as an intentional admission of the presence of an audience, and thus creates in those viewers a keen desire to fill the vacuum in the exchange.

Stephen Shore, Trail's Inn Restaurant,

Stephen Shore, Trail’s Inn Restaurant, 1973

This is a classic and time-proven power play: be blank and others will project onto you. Shore’s photographs enact the role of the distant parent, and viewers, critics, and especially academics line-up like anxious children to bring Daddy fresh offerings of interpretation, hoping against hope for a nod of approval and a pat on the head. The dynamic is both repellent and utterly fascinating to watch play out. And I am hardly immune. The display of his selected works at CO gives the viewer plenty of room to peer into each work, enough breathing space to make each square of not-muchness seem like a beguiling jewel set in plain metal. There could be much more work here, I feel, but that might work against the preciousness created by the sparse display strategy.

Subsequently, the patient viewer combs the catalogue, so to speak, of Shore’s anti-Subject subjects – domestic appliances, barren streets, urban scrub lands – looking for clues to  answer to the simple question “why am I looking at this image?” And so, the stumbled-upon recurrence of a color (institutional forest-green, egg-yellow) takes on a deeper layer of meaning than mere happenstance. It appears constructed, even sculptural. The awkward, tilted light in a hotel room becomes a menacing foreshadow. Abandoned cars, abandoned rooms, abandoned strips of highway, all echo with remorse, reek of death and tell long stories about discarded aspirations.

But of course all that layered-with-meaning chatter comes entirely from inside us. It is a fiction crafted by the lonely viewer—all that found meaning, that’s just your brain desperately gobbling up visual crumbs to make a meal. (This flattening of narrative came up in the AFC capsule review comments of his 2014 show at 303 gallery.) But Shore’s photographs do not reward the cobbling-together effort, and not because they are poorly constructed or mere lucky accidents, but because what Shore’s images are meant to do is create frustration. And a very particular, still very relevant frustration.

Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore, Musya Vainshteyn´s Home, Nemirov, Ukraine, Oktober 16, 2013

Shore’s work generated—and can still generate—an anxiety that first shocked audiences and then, virus-like, grew to become the defining anxiety of contemporary art: namely, the search for meaning beyond surfaces, beyond what appears to be obvious. A photograph of a telephone is always just a photograph of a telephone. But when contextualized as contemporary art, that same photograph is always never just a photograph of a telephone.  “It is Art,” we tell ourselves, “so it must have meaning”. This desire to deny the evidence (it’s just a picture of a phone) is the art world version of horror vacuae.  And therein lays Shore’s genius, why Shore is still important: we are all living in his long shadow.

40 years on from Shore’s first presentations, everything and nothing has changed. Audiences are more visually literate and media-savvy than ever before, but they are also utterly unable to make choices or create any kind of visual hierarchy. A photo of a cat equals a Rembrandt. Personally, I find this liberating, if occasionally disorienting.

Shore’s work thus seems both vitally of this time and adorably dated. His protracted experiment in celebrating banality leaked into the wider culture and morphed into an over-privileging of banality. Shore and his contemporaries are now the establishment, not the outliers, and from their example the culture has set its default visual setting to Banal. We take pictures of our breakfasts. If you showed a 20-something Shore’s photographs today, outside of a gallery context, that kid would think it merely another occasionally interesting Instagram feed, with a retro hipster-chic twist.

It’s strange to look at this once ground breaking work as a cultural relic, and not in the art-historical sense, but as a kind of amateurish (in spirit, not execution) first attempt. His images no longer make us question the future of photography or ask us to consider what is an important image and what is not, but rather function as an historical note bene.

From Stephen Shore’s work it is not much of a jump to the idea that photographing your new socks and disseminating the images around the world is a good idea. What Shore started—the above quoted “spectacularization of the banal”—the digital age perfected and rides, rides, rides to death.

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