Picture This

We wanted to say something nasty about DMA's Thomas Struth exhibit, but can't

The stance works less well in Struth's best-known works, his museum photographs--a famous series of more or less objective views of people viewing art in museums that demonstrates the strengths and the weaknesses of Struth's philosopher-anthropologist schtick. They represent the point at which Struth's work veers off into faux profundity, as we, the viewers, contemplate Struth viewing people viewing art, or even Struth viewing people viewing people viewing art. They are simple illustrations of what, in a legal context, is called the "renvoi." Ironically, they are interesting mostly for the very qualities Struth prefers not to emphasize in his work: an old-fashioned sense of pictorial composition, a richness of color and subject matter and breathtaking beauty. While the actual experience of visiting, say, Venice's San Zaccaria or Times Square literally overwhelms the senses, in Struth's huge (70-by-90-inch) full-color portraits, we can take in the beauty of setting, soak in the details, study and appreciate, free from vertigo. The viewers are simply part of the visual tapestry, an element as rich and interesting as an intricately inlaid marble floor. As many theorists have noted, we perceive its beauty in part because the subject is fleeting; indeed, the moment, the visit, is already gone, and thus inextricably linked to death, to the nature of time.

There is a melancholy in many of Struth's successful photographs. Strangely, it is a quality the artist himself recognizes only in his most recent work, a series of forest and jungle scenes. Titled "Paradise," the recent works depart from Struth's oeuvre in their flat, frontal quality, in their lack of vanishing points and visible horizons and in their dense, even claustrophobic composition. Like a Pollock drip painting, they defy analysis or deconstruction, flat and aloof and inscrutable. In a recent article, Struth himself explains that the jungle pictures spring from "pictorial and emotional" concerns and that they primarily "emphasize the self...It's about the experience of time as well as a certain humility in dealing with things. It's a metaphor for life and death."

As usual, the curators of this show are too awed by the conventional wisdom, by the dictates of marketing and curatorial fashion, to provide any compelling assessment of Struth's work, much less of his likely place in art history. But the essays accompanying the show's catalog are lucid, and surprisingly jargon-free, and the catalog, like the show, is a worthy effort, not to mention a pleasant surprise.

"Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago" (1990), one of Thomas Struth's "museum photographs" now on view at the DMA
"Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago" (1990), one of Thomas Struth's "museum photographs" now on view at the DMA


Through August 18; 214-922-1200
Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 Harwood

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