Companion Pieces: New Photography 2020
September 28 – November 16, 2020
The latest iteration of MoMA’s New Photography exhibition cycle comprises works from eight artists and takes place entirely online. Companion Pieces asks the viewer to look beyond initial reactions and delve deeper into our reading of images. Each week from September 28 through November 16, a new feature premieres on the museum’s Magazine to highlight the next artist in the queue. While a little gimmicky, the timed release does afford each photographer their own space in which to exist, and it gives the viewer more digestible chunks than an immediate barrage of images. Audio and video components help to expand on each week’s offering and illuminate the more nuanced aspects of the artists’ practices. Furthermore, the extended looking afforded by home viewing allows for lengthier study of each (digital) image.
And why shouldn’t this year’s New Photography exhibition be fully online? Regardless if the impetus for a web-only show was financial or related to social-distancing, this format is really more in tune with where photography finds itself today. The vast majority of images are digital (whether in display or production), and it’s somewhat regressive to think that an exhibition focused on photography needs to exist in a physical space. That said, the works included here were not made to solely exist online—many, in fact, include a sculptural component that seems to call out for embodied space. Indeed, the introduction text notes, “This exhibition was conceived well before the pandemic forced us inside, physically isolating us from one another, compelling us to connect through our screens. We’d already become accustomed to the ways in which links thread one image to another through clicks.”1 By mere happenstance, it seems, did this internet version of New Photography align with the days of quarantine doom scrolling. Why not take the opportunity, then, to go further? Why not showcase non-traditional works that take full advantage of the online format, of the various viewing screens we interact with daily, and of the global reach a web-only exhibition can have?
On that last note, Companion Pieces does gain some traction. The selected artists hail from across the globe, and the American-born artists are outnumbered by their contemporaries from India, Mexico, Germany, Russia, and Greece. This makes for a diverse array of talented artists utilizing the 21st century’s most ubiquitous medium, and curator Lucy Gallun does a good job of highlighting traditionally underrepresented voices in fine art photography. The evocative documentary catalog of Zora J Murff and the meticulous collages of Dionne Lee shed light on personal experience in an America divided by race. The conceptual staging of works by Maria Antelman and Irina Rozovsky asks us to consider how images affect each other and our ideas of meaning, while Iñaki Bonillas and Özlem Altın pursue abstracted compositions that reposition photographs as material objects rather than purveyors of visual truth. Lastly, both Sohrab Hura’s detached, magic realist tableaus and David Alekhuogie’s multifaceted constructions take on social commentaries through more pictorial, poetic modes at odds with their real-world, documentary subjects.
Companion Pieces thrives on teasing out and foregrounding the connections between images. Many of the artists utilize collage or image pairing in a way that ignites an otherwise ordinary image by virtue of its proximity to others. Only Hura and Murff present singular images, the first in lyrical framings and the latter in a documentary mode. But these artists nonetheless rely on the viewer to attribute meaning through context (or search for such meaning in accompanying texts). In a similar fashion, Iñaki Bonillas’s Marginalia series combines disparate images reproduced from books in his library by connecting the white space around their printed edges in a kind of sinuous and irregular meander. Like crisp, geometric rivers of emptiness, these constructed lines bring together countless texts in a visual map. Often, as in Marginalia 2 (2019), the chosen images have formal similarities (this particular example is all faces) and the artist’s knack for creating compelling sequences shines through. Treating each book as a facet of his own self and his library as a literary representation of the photographer, Bonillas constructs visual depictions of his thoughts and mental processes.
One of the most successful bodies of work in Companion Pieces is David Alekhuogie’s selection of visually rich, multilayered photographs. Works like rancho cucamonga 34.1064° N, 117.5931° W (2018) combine studio shots with images captured en plein air to create a striking amalgam of the two. This particular example, as well as others in his “To Live & Die in LA” series, focuses on the practice of sagging and its cultural implications—including the blatant racial discrimination around dress codes that is routinely used to profile and penalize Black men. Alekhuogie, however, also thinks more broadly about the idea of a body as a landscape and the body within urban space. Taking framed images that depict the colored strata formed by waistbands and shirt ends, Alekhuogie collapses the natural and personal spaces into one. Athletic shorts and underwear worn by the artist’s subjects fuse visually with leaves and flowers as “the contentious saggy pants merge with nature—protective camouflage for the black body within.”2 The interplay between printed and rephotographed images, the figure and the flowers, and the nuances of both culture and naturel provide a rich depth to Alekhuogie’s images.
On the one hand, Companion Pieces triumphs by providing an in-depth examination of a small group of artists. Rather than undertaking a whirlwind visit to the galleries, one can peruse the show at home and take time with each image or collection. On the other hand, this exhibition could easily be a physical experience, and the reasons why it is not remain unclear. Might it not be better to see all of Lee’s assemblages in situ? Or to view the texture and interplay of photograph and paint in Altın’s compositions firsthand? The intimacy of Rozovsky’s found frames is muted by the viewing screen. Regardless of the presentation, the artists are strong and offer pertinent contributions to a global arts conversation. Photography remains the artform most directly linked to our ever-changing present, but perhaps its ubiquity makes it more difficult to think outside the frame.
- “Companion Pieces: New Photography 2020,” https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5243