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The Museum of Modern Art in New York regularly curates a selection of images by domestic and international photographers at various stages in their careers in their New Photography exhibition series. With the intention of presenting “urgent and compelling ideas in recent photography and photo-based art”, more than anything else the exhibition is a window on the Museum’s approach to photography. And the curators ask big, lofty questions like this year’s, “How can photography capture what it means to be human?” They selected seventeen artists whose work lurches from captivating, campy and politically charged to stagnant and impenetrable in an oddly uneven show. Below, I highlight the work I found exhilarating and/or intriguing, on view at MoMA through August 19th, 2018.
Most of the work on view presents some form, variant or obfuscation of portraiture, prompting questions about what allows us to recognize ourselves and feel seen. Piercing psychological probes inventively address common themes such as women’s conflicting traditional versus contemporary cultural identity in Aida Muluneh’s electric images, the sociopolitical angling in Adelita Husni-Bey’s tableaus, racial and gender tensions in Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s ingeniously fragmented compositions and Andrzej Steinbach’s insightful series exploring the search for self within larger society. In contrast, timely issues like immigration and cultural assimilation are addressed in works at once bold and poignant by Huong Ngo & Hong-An Truong, Shilpa Gupta, Matthew Connors and Stephanie Syjuco. These artists utilize multi-part installations, reflecting complex interrelationships and capitalizing on the high impact of patterns. Balancing out some of the more obtuse imagery (not illustrated), the eternal quest to capture the essence of intimate relationships grounds the exhibit with emotional glue, as in the mesmerizing, gut-wrenching childbirth installation by Carmen Winant, mounted in a passageway that invokes a birth canal, and the deeply moving portraits by Sam Contis and Joanna Piotrowska.
MoMA’s broad theme of “what it means to be human” seems tantamount to no theme at all, providing an excuse for gathering a mishmash of views into an exhibit that veers from enthralling to overwrought. The noticeable preoccupation with technique only underlines the exhibit’s lack of cohesion. I think there are exciting reasons to see this show but I wish MoMA would remember that there is a fine line between challenging viewers and risking their disengagement.
The artists included in “Being: New Photography 2018” are:
Organized by Lucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography.
For more information, go to: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3886?locale=en
Feature Image: Installation view of entryway to “Being: New Photography 2018” at MoMA in NYC (photo: Elin Spring).