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Leibovitz, Liu & Hall @ San Jose Museum of Art

Doug Hall, Chrysopylae, 2012, 2-screen projection,  6' 9" x 24' 6" overall 
 
Three solo shows now on view at the San Jose Museum of art — from Doug Hall, Annie Leibovitz and Hung Liu — cap the summer season and form an unlikely but winning trifecta.  Hall’s Chrysopylae is one of the more amazing videos now in circulation. Ferried and flown around the Bay by helicopter and tugboat, Hall recorded views of Golden Gate Bridge, its immediate environs and the container ships that pass beneath it.  In this split-screen video, where vessels are both subject and backdrop, their otherwise unremarkable comings and goings take on metaphysical overtones in telescoped views provided by Hall’s twin cameras, mounted side-by-side to create a panoramic vision.
 
Commissioned by the FOR-SITE Foundation in honor of the GGB’s 75th anniversary, the video (whose title means golden gate in Greek) was first screened in 2012 at the International Orange festival at Fort Point. Its appearance constituted a perfect match of subject and setting, as well as a prime example of a truly transcendent intersection between the “built” and the natural environment.  The best moments in this 28-minute video come when Hall’s cameras hover over the roadway.  Towers and suspension cables transform moving ships into a vertiginous montage of geometric abstractions that seem unreal. Close-ups, shot from what appear to be the windsurfer’s or porpoise's eye view, seem all too real.  They give us a visceral feel for the ships’ bulk.
 
Doug Hall, Mount Rushmore, 2004, chromogenic print, 50 x 65"

In contrast, the artist’s large-format color photos, which line three walls of the same gallery, represent vestiges of the Old Sublime, what the eco-activist writer Edward Abbey termed “industrial tourism”.  They show camera-toting tourists in national parks, snapping pictures of each other before scenes that in the 19th century would have been fodder for Romantic painters.  Preternaturally lit as if composed in a studio, they function as brilliant send-ups of a certain genre of gift shop postcards, but they don’t tell us much about the commodification of nature that we don’t already know.  Hall’s video, which floats above the taint of knowing irony, is clearly the main event.

Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz follows a similar path in Pilgrimage, a show of Americana assembled from her travels to sites of historic and artistic significance. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty; Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello; Niagara Falls; Graceland; Georgia O’Keefe’s house; Eleanor Roosevelt’s living room; Ansel Adams’ Yosemite; Pete Seeger’s tool-jammed workshop; and Martha Graham’s Yonkers storage facility are but a few of the things Leibovitz records.  There’s not a bad shot in the bunch.  Problem is, too few of the 78 on view measure up to the high standards she sets for herself.  More often than not, the stories behind the places and things pictured overshadow the photographs, and as a result, I found myself spending more time reading wall labels than images — projecting feelings onto the images rather than the other way around.  Still, there’s a lot that Leibovitz brings to the task of creating a personal travelogue that make this show worth catching before it closes September 8.
 
Annie Leibovitz, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, 2009 

Andy Grunberg, the former Times photography critic curated this exhibit.  Wisely, he opens it with three of the most powerful images of Spiral Jetty you're likely to see. Dusted in salt and with the Jetty looking uncharacteristically crisp, they look as much like paintings as they do photographs, proving that Leibovitz's exquisite touch with light isn't dependent on studio effects; it's a part of her being, something she carries with her.  Her frothy picture of Niagara Falls; the orange-glowing images of Jefferson’s vegetable garden; the blinding window view from Virginia Woolf’s writing studio; and the otherworldly blue light suffusing Annie Oakley’s home turf are all wonderful examples.  

Other images, though not head-spinning, definitely provoke thought.  The bullet-damaged TV monitor at Graceland made me wonder if Elvis pulled the trigger because he knew, by the early ‘70s, that he was “over”.   And about those crates in Graham’s warehouse I wondered: can a life as rich as hers be reduced to a pile of boxes?  But in too many instances Leibovitz's photos of objects, like Julia Margaret Cameron’s camera lens, Thoreau’s wicker bed, Freud’s couch and Lincoln’s hat and groves are simply inscrutable.  Which is where the show sometimes falters.  Pilgrimage, the artist stated, wasn’t an attempt to wow the public; it was a soul-saving project, undertaken during a time of great financial and personal stress.  That it delivers as many remarkable photos as it does proves that Leibovitz can operate just fine outside the pages of Vanity Fair.
 
Hung Liu, Remnant, 2013, acrylic painting with video projection

The painter Hung Liu, whose interests are time, memory and Chinese history, is seen here experimenting with video. The piece that registers strongest, Remnant, is a diptych, the last of “Four Cantos” that the artist created with fast strokes in a span of minutes by painting on top of projected films.  Equal parts action painting, performance and installation, it is, almost by definition, a work that is in the process of becoming.  It asks viewers to complete it, and we do. By straining to decipher a plot or narrative in the silent Chinese propaganda films that flicker on top of the artist’s gestures, we follow the same path as Liu does when she paints from old photographs: We project ourselves into a world that no longer exists, and then attempt to extract meaning from it.  It’s a conceptual/perceptual territory rich in possibilities that I hope she’ll explore further.

–DAVID M. ROTH
“Timelapse: Doug Hall and the Western Landscape”, through October 20, 2013.
Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, through September 8, 2013.
“Questions from the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu”, through September 29, 2013.  
 
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