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Watching Art Watchers Is an Art in Itself

Art Review

German photographer Thomas Struth's often-spectacular works --of people looking at pictures--pull in viewers.

September 21, 2002|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you think going to a museum to look at pictures of people looking at pictures is redundant, you'll probably be put off by Thomas Struth's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened Sunday.

But that would be your loss. Struth's photographs invite viewers to contemplate peculiar details, rewarding us with intriguing pleasures.

The 48-year-old German artist's midcareer survey, which was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, consists of 93 photographs. They come in three sizes: huge color prints affixed to the backs of gigantic sheets of Plexiglas and set in steely gray frames; medium-size color pictures mounted similarly; and small black-and-white photographs framed traditionally.

At MOCA, the user-friendly exhibition fills three galleries. The first contains nine big color prints Struth made between 1988 and 1992, when he visited museums in London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Naples, Venice and Chicago. They form the show's overture, introducing viewers to major themes and providing a model of how its pictures work.

The first one is a straight-on shot of three early Renaissance paintings in London's National Gallery. Titled "National Gallery, London," Struth's photograph does not identify the paintings it depicts.

Everything that happens in his meticulously composed image also takes place outside its frame, right where you're standing. In the photograph, five ordinary viewers are oblivious to Struth's camera: Their backs to the photographer, they face the same direction we do, toward an elaborately framed, nearly life-size painting of the Apostle Thomas examining the wound in Christ's side. The other disciples' faces register a wide range of emotions, from I-told-you-so sanctimony to relief that someone else had the nerve to do what they were afraid to.

Struth's choice of subject matter is instructive. Although religious belief is not as pervasive as it was when the painting was made, doubt is--especially doubt about art. And yet art's powers are believed in by many, even if they can't be articulated clearly.

The see-for-yourself, science-inspired skepticism embodied by Thomas runs throughout Struth's oeuvre. It's palpable in his best pictures, which seem to be unsure about their relationship to the real world and uncertain about photography's capacity to capture what's important about the present. Their doubt is infectious, even quietly exciting, especially when it heightens one's perception of the mysteriousness of simple things.

The painting's composition is also significant. It provides the architecture around which Struth builds his image. On the blank back wall of the symmetrical room in which Christ and the Apostles stand, a pair of arched windows open onto a fanciful landscape. This illusionistic deep space functions as a pictorial counterweight to the space in which viewers actually stand.

Moving from the painted landscape to the painted room and on to the photographed gallery, your eye picks up enough momentum to jump from the two-dimensional realm of art to the 3-D space of real life. By setting pictures within pictures and worlds within worlds, Struth plays a sort of visual shell game, shuffling their frames so adeptly that you feel as if you're included in the drama.

The remaining eight photographs in the introductory gallery present variations on this theme. Moments of serenity take shape amid chaos, both within the paintings and amid the people looking at them.

To make these images, Struth patiently waited until unsuspecting museum visitors mirrored the postures of the painted figures or mimicked their activities, either metaphorically or literally. The idea that photography is a reproductive art takes a funny turn in his work. Treating both painterly and photographic representations as engines that set your imagination in motion, his pictures drive viewers to determine just where they stand in relation to what they see.

The second gallery takes us into the street and back in time. Small black-and-white photographs, most of which were made between 1977 and 1988, depict empty city streets in New York, Chicago, Paris, Rome and Tokyo. Made just after daybreak, when most people are sleeping, they transform the most banal, often ugly urban scenes into delicious little interludes from the cacophony of life in the big city.

Although silence and solitude are these works' main ingredients, Struth shows his sense of humor in "Piazza Augusto" (1984), in which a huge stone statue of a bishop appears to beseech the heavens on behalf of a pair of street-cleaner's pushcarts.

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