Maybe it's unfair to expect the "European Edge" exhibition to really cut both ways--as a revelation for American eyes and an up-to-date summation of European photo trends. Now at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the display is a landmark one for the Balboa Park museum, showcasing 13 of Europe's most experimental photographers for the first time on these shores. But historical significance is one thing, visual impact something else.
Exhibition curator Philipp Scholz Ritterman addresses the problem clearly enough in his catalogue essay: "New trends, ideas and concepts in art seem to be readily explored in the U.S.A. A society which lives by change instead of avoiding it is much more open to new ideas. Not so in Europe, where things are so tightly packed and history is so dense . . .
"New Realism, Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Avant-Garde photography and other revolutionary art movements that came from Europe in the '20s and '30s were all the more volatile because the effort required to bring about change of any kind was so immense."
Ritterman notes that these artistic revolutions transferred quickly to the West, where artists have been running with the ball ever since. But only recently has this spirit resurfaced in Europe:
"It seems that with the emergence of punk and new wave the cycle has returned and made Western Europe into a hotbed of artistic innovation once again . . . pluralism and readiness for experimentation are vitalizing European photography and moving it away from the confines of regionalism and nationalism."
Fine. But to the jaded American eye, much of this exhibition may seem old-hat and so-what. Never mind that European artists have done so much to get the avant-garde ball rolling; the American appetite for the newfangled isn't very well satisfied by "European Edge." For example, Joan Fontcuberta's "Herbarium" series, in which fictitious plant-like constructions of bones, wood and various materials are photographed studiously and given punning, pseudo-scientific names. To those who have been inspired by recent retrospectives of Imogen Cunningham's classic plant photography, Fontcuberta's playful illusions seem thoroughly minor.
Similarly, Toto Frima's erotic, psychodramatic Polaroid sequences, or Stefan de Jaeger's large-scale, elegant, cubistic Polaroid friezes only remind us of how much more daringly and lyrically Lucas Samaras, Victor Landweber and David Hockney have stretched the boundaries of Polaroid art--even though de Jaeger is one of its pioneers.
Since this display is hardly a retrospective but a collection of recent work (1978-85), the question of which came first is less relevant than what's coming. And there is evocative work here, however minor. Michel Krzyzanowski, for example, is fascinated by tryptichs, shadow images, shifting perspectives that turn figurative subjects into more abstracted notions. Andreas Mueller-Pohle avoids the viewfinder altogether and offers blurry, purely abstracted shots that suggest ghosts captured on film. Jose Rodriguez mounts his faces and figures in plexiglass containers, or surrounds them with Dada objects like typewriters and toy lizards.
Less convincingly, Winfred Evers constructs elaborate abstractions of paper, cardboard and various unrelated materials and shoots for grand illusions of space and depth. What he gets, mainly, are elaborately contrived photos of odd material. Rudolph Lichtsteiner depicts an optically distorted table that shows off his camera technique more than anything.
Then again, there is some genuinely startling art on display--work that itself validates this show. Ludo Geysels' large-scale color-print series "Thisorder" is hugely original, painterly and powerfully suggestive. It depicts the transformation of a banal living room set into a bizarre tribal image, with half-nude figures wrapped in rags, splattered with paint and garbage, their faces hideously shrouded by muddied masks. The series' progressive descent into chaos--aboriginal or post-nuclear?--is ironically belied by the essential civility of the figures' various poses.
The veneer of civilization is also the subject of Karen Knorr's "Gentlemen" series, which depicts traditional male social clubs in London and uses a contemplative text to attack the tribal prejudice that seems to make these clubs tick.
Breaking tradition, Floris Neusuess rips photography from the typical framed-image context, producing life-size human images--positive-negative "photograms," sponged from long photochemical sheets--without using a camera or lens.
If the likes of Geysels, Knorr and Neusuess were the full focus of "European Edge," the display would seem much more on the cutting edge it so ambitiously strives to present. Less, in this case, would be more. Our curiosity about photography's European vanguard would be less satisfied but better whetted.