Categorized | Reviews

Doug Hall @ Rena Bransten

Nadja, 2015, 3 Chromogenic prints, 10 1/2 x 8 1/2" each
In a career that has spanned performance, video, photography, and installation, Doug Hall’s concerns have remained fairly consistent. They’ve centered on his ongoing interest with the way the body, architectural space, mass media, and the mechanics of photographic reproduction interrelate. While his seminal 1987 installation The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described remains on view through June 6 at the Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI, Love & Architecture at Rena Bransten, which ended May 16, offered a more expansive look at work spanning several decades. Initially, the concept of love seems at odds with Hall’s rigorously conceptual practice. As it turns out, this work represents less of a departure than a deepening focus on his longstanding themes.
His triptych Nadja opens the show as a kind of thesis statement. It’s comprised of three photographs of illustrations from André Breton’s surrealist novel of the same name.  They depict a hotel, a woman’s glove and a park fountain seen from the distance. The elision of bodies in this “narrative” alludes to the ways in which we invest objects, locales, and architecture with romantic connotations. The romance supposedly resides in what we don’t see in those frames: the activity inside the hotel, the lady’s hand and body, and what might be suggested by the spray of a park fountain as viewed by two lovers.
The Lonely Heart I, 1989/2015, C-prints and pigment prints, 18 1/2 x 18 1/2" ea.

The Lonely Heart I” (1987/2015) expands on this premise, arguing that all architectural spaces, not just hotels, might resonate with erotic overtones. Here, snippets of text from letters to the advice columnist, Joyce Brothers, are interspersed with photos of slick glass office towers. One such missive came from a sexually frustrated woman who wished her husband would spank her. The piece seems to ask:  Do these architectural symbols of prestige and power convey an aura of eroticism?  Or, are they merely emasculating cubicle farms that foster sexual dysfunction?  Probably both. Either way, the point made is that even our most non-erotic spaces might be as capable of shaping our sense of eroticism as our boudoirs. Two other photographs explore a similar tension by starkly superimposing diagrams of airport terminals over photos of faces taken from porn videos.

Elsewhere, these themes of love, buildings, and mechanical reproduction are explored in other ways. “And then the Torpor Spread Like Smoke” recalls vanitas paintings by including glamorous smokers, lovers and funeral flowers. The nine photos range from technically precise large-format images to low-res camera phone shots that seem dated. The conscious appropriation of these photographic conventions defuses the otherwise fraught content – downplaying romantic associations while prompting one to ponder the social forces underlying them.  Likewise, “Imagine it is Evening” – four photographs which depict, in turn, a rain-streaked window, flowers, and a candle, and “A Concern of the Night” (a photograph of a candle) — overwhelm the sentimentality of their subject matter through brute force. The technical perfectionism of the photographs makes it seem less like a kind of picturesque self-expression than a petri dish on which particular tropes of picturesque self-expression have been splayed. Likewise, the photograph “Girl in a Red Shirt” (2003/2015) depicts a woman

And then the torpor spread like smoke, 2015, 9 C-prints, 36 x 36" overall

staring into the camera with a kind of wry self-possession. Her eyes and shirt are in color; the rest of the image is black and white: a device that asserts the fact we are looking at a flat surface tarnished by exposure to light and shaped by familiar clichés that Hall knows all too well.

The large video, Chrysopilae, performs a similar act of deconstruction, but in a much grander fashion. The piece, whose title means golden gate in Greek, is a spectacular portrait of San Francisco’s landmark suspension bridge.  It’s depicted on two wide-screen monitors, which convey the structure’s immense scale and surroundings, all in crystal-clear HD. The only action is the passage of auto traffic over the bridge and an enormous freighter gliding across the water underneath. The tone is silent and deadpan, as if drawn from a security camera.
The video’s scale and affectlessness immediately call to mind Andreas Gursky’s photographs; but instead of evoking Gursky’s God’s eye view, Hall’s brand of omnipotence seems bureaucratic — a product of exhaustive video coverage. While the stately, measured pace of the action evokes a sense of global interconnectedness, that feeling is undercut by bland clarity, effectively stripping the bridge of its mythological, post-card-from-San Francisco quality. Hall’s video, then, becomes a blank slate onto which we can project whatever we like. The bridge is just there.  Everything else is just stories we tell ourselves.
Doug Hall: “Love & Architecture” ended May 16, 2015 @ Rena Bransten.
About the author:
Elwyn Palmerton is an Oakland-based artist dealing in obsessive and improvisational abstract paintings. A New Jersey native, he received a B.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. from The School of Visual Arts.  Since graduating he has exhibited regularly in New York City and Oakland. His writing has appeared in Frieze, Art Ltd., Artillery, Sculpture and Art Review.

Comments are closed.

Vertical Slideshow

Email Subscription Request

You will receive a verification message once you submit this form.