Thomas Ruff - 'Lights' @ SMAK, Ghent

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Thomas Ruff - 'Lights' @ SMAK, Ghent

Postby CAP » Tue Jul 08, 2014 1:48 am

17th May – 24th August

Forget about the lame selection of summer blockbusters, from Matisse’s Cut-outs at Tate Madam ( :roll: ) to Sigmar Polke’s Greatest Misses at MoMA NYC ( :lol: ) or Jeff Koons at The Whitney, an 80s relic still stuck with the same shallow and stunted tastes ( :twisted: ). Koons' is art for the 1%ers from a manager of the 99%ers and leaves the museum looking more like a trade showroom with all that bling. It’s a visual merchandising aesthetic for those that buy hype. To judge from the grapevine, rather than the measured salvos of mainstream salutes, I think The Whitless fatally misread the public’s mood on this one and provide a regrettable but not unpredictable note on which to vacate its Madison Avenue premises.

Actually the best big name survey is over in Ghent at SMAK, with the photographs of Thomas Ruff, titled Lights. Of course we would say that. True to our name, WWR likes to look further afield, now and then. SMAK may sound more like a rehab than a municipal museum for contemporary art, but it consistently punches above its weight and this show is no exception. Curated by the aptly named Martin Germann (who is German) the show gathers five series from across Ruff’s career, starting in the mid 70s (the artist is 54) with his precise tableaux of domestic interiors and charting his interest in technical resources, mostly digital, to the genres or themes that reside in such means, their vagaries or problematic content.

Germann showcases the abstracting tendency across Ruff’s work, the way content becomes unreal or unreadable, even by the most conventional of means. The source object is progressively distanced by selective angle, frame and crucially, lighting, so that a domestic room for instance is rendered a complex intersection of planes, of uncertain scale, or a night sky of stars drawn from a radio-telescope is reduced to a scattering of just white blobs on a black ground, while ‘Nights’ employ ‘night-vision’ infra-red enhancement rendered in a green tint, to transform urban settings, and more recently the ‘Photograms’ series use a super-computer to process complex compositing of an object we can no longer even identify, beyond lens-based abstraction. A subset of 'Photograms', titled ‘Negatives’, reverse tonalities to more conventional scenes of sumptuous, possibly colonial interiors and adopt a blue tint, wittily titled ‘Blueprints’, underscoring formal, schematic values. Just why these last two series needed so much computation (Ruff worked at the physics research centre at Jülich, in North Rhine-Westphalia for this) I am unsure, even after reading the accompanying texts. But while the prints are large (and presumably the files even more so) the results look no more than extended Photoshop.

But really, it is the accumulative effect of the show – and astute curating – that impresses. Individually, the works have always been very restrained or detached. Ruff’s scientific interests have always been manifest and manifestly not to everyone’s liking, to judge from the comments threads to some of the German reviews for the show. But when you see a cross section of the work, as in Lights, the pull between realism and abstraction definitely gains traction. Some critics will still find the work a bit cold and calculating but there is also a wonderful restraint, a delicacy to this seemingly prosaic documentation. If the 'Photograms' sometimes seem not much more than screen saver animation, a better inclusion might have been some of his ‘MA.R.S.’ series, satellite images of the surface of Mars, drawn from the NASA website (and in the public domain). These too are variously Photoshopped to arrive at indeterminate planes, surfaces, scales. The work backs into abstraction on these terms, deriving from very concrete, realistic objects and process but ultimately rendered strange or unreadable.

The real point for me was seeing pictorial abstraction tracked through these most literal of genres, as the subtle filtering of realism to specific realms, each dependent upon special techniques or technology. Ruff is a key player because he has the breadth of vision to display this across scientific as well as sociological terrain although perhaps suffers a little for the accompanying detachment. But this is a must-see show. If only one of the big London public spaces could get onboard! Following the Ghent dates the show travels to Dusseldorf Kunsthalle, its spiritual home obviously, given the artist’s residence there and long association with its distinguished Art Academy.
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Re: Thomas Ruff - 'Lights' @ SMAK, Ghent

Postby CAP » Fri Sep 05, 2014 10:51 am

On the topic of the Koons survey, Barry Schwabsky also gives it the big thumbs down. :)
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