Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
April 28 to July 31, 2016
par Jill Glessing
A desire to produce and circulate images drove the invention of photography. Almost two centuries later, the dream verges on nightmare as archivists and image theorists scramble to find space and meaning for all the photographs that have been produced. it’s a good time for collectors. One of them – German artist Thomas Ruff – has, for nearly three decades now, been exploring the properties and potential of images made by others. The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition Object Relations1 emphasizes Ruff’s role as artist-collector-curator.
Ruff’s appropriation and repurposing of photographs joins a tradition that developed alongside new technologies that facilitated the proliferation of mass-media images. Many engaging in the form – John Heartfield in the 1930s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and Barbara Kruger in the 1980s – sucked the potency out of found imagery to make hard political critiques. Others, less polemically, used it self-reflexively to explore the nature and history of the photographic medium. Ruff is among these. An eclectic mix of archival and reworked images – none originating in his own camera – engage with diverse media and genres across photographic history: science, photojournalism, industrial photography, and art – all now processed into “art.” Drawn from a much larger oeuvre that also explores pornography, landscape, architectural works, and portraits, the selection in this show exhibits the artist’s breadth and openness to diverse inspirations.
Ruff gained art-world recognition in 1986 for his large-scale, museum-friendly colour portraits of his Düsseldorf peers (Porträts). The work’s straight, typological approach makes clear that Ruff took the instruction of his teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, deeply to heart. But beneath the portraits’ realism lies the perverse tendency of resistance to authority: the evenly lit faces offer up every surface detail, yet their blank expressions bar any deeper access. The series was made in the wake of the “German Autumn,” when officials, roused by the Baader-Meinhof Group, were slipping toward a surveillance state and demanding photo ID at every turn. Beneath what might seem to be a student’s adoption of his professors’ straight style were critiques of both the aesthetic convention of realist transparency and, in showing all but telling nothing, the state panopticon.
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