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Tillmans' touch: Image as installation

September 29, 2006|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Wolfgang Tillmans is already a confirmed art star. The German-born artist, based in London, has exhibited internationally since about 1990 and was crowned with Britain's Turner Prize in 2000. For the last dozen years, books of his work have been published at a clip of about two annually.

His first American retrospective, at the Hammer Museum, might also land him a new title, as aesthetic champion of the DIY ethic.

The show, weighing in at 300 photographs, is a precious heap of raw ingredients. Tillmans supplies the nouns and adjectives in his pictures of people, places, things and moody color fields. Our job is to come up with the verbs and conjunctions that might invest those images with synergy. His work is long on latency, short on actual impact.

Tillmans' accretion of images amounts to an ongoing journal, notes to the self recording passing observations -- the pathos of a rumpled, cast-aside T-shirt; the sweaty gleam of patrons at a dance club; the look of slush beneath the boots on a city sidewalk; a slash of lightning across the night sky.

Portraits are a recurring form, as are windowsill still lifes. A grid of more than 50 pictures shows the Concorde in various places and at various angles within the frame but mostly as a sleek, futuristic silhouette flying over the low-tech landscape. Huge camera-less prints capture accidents of light and color.

Quirky views are sprinkled in among the more quotidian. One shows a shirtless young man with a Mohawk urinating onto the green fabric of an office chair. One pictures a rat slipping down a sewer grate. Another is a view of a hallway floor strewn with black socks. Echoing Eleanor Antin's landmark "100 Boots" series, the picture suggests the record or residue of an unidentified performance.

Tillmans disavows being a diarist, but his work holds up best when read as an extended self-portrait, a visual analogue to multiplicitous identity. Within such a framework, everything has a place, or as his 2003 show at the Tate Britain was titled, "if one thing matters, everything matters." The intimate and ordinary, astute and pretentious, beautiful and odd all get their moment, but the cumulative effect is a sense that if everything matters, no one thing matters very much.

The strength of Tillmans' art is in its overall impression. He lacks a distinctive style of picture making (most of the images are just a notch better than pedestrian), but he gets more inventive when it comes to display. He prints his photographs -- most in color but some in black-and-white -- in a wide range of sizes, from snapshot small to mural wide. Some are printed glossy, others inkjet matte. They are hung at eye level and higher and sometimes nestled into a corner. Some are framed, but most are simply taped to the wall or hung with clips. Tillmans operates more like an installation artist than a maker of discrete works to be curated by others. (This show does, however, have two curators: the Hammer's Russell Ferguson, and Dominic Molon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.) He is a stylist above all.

Julie Ault, writing in the exhibition catalog (useful, even if it's Tillmans' 23rd such book), likens his mode of installation to a constellation and, even more fittingly, to the wall-to-wall visual collages in teenagers' bedrooms. With his display, Tillmans, too, exudes a hunger for acknowledgment and legitimacy as he asserts his idiosyncratic self. He presses against convention and authority -- within the safe confines of the family / institutional home.

The most provocative aspect of Tillmans' installation method is its absence of wall labels. Pictures are not identified individually, and neither are there the customary wall texts offering introductions to each gallery's contents. Throwing viewers back onto their own direct experience of the work mirrors the way Tillmans uses the camera as a navigational tool through his world. In this, he bears some resemblance to Nan Goldin, whose "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" was a fluid, continually changing and expanding chronicle of love, sex, drugs, friendship and loss made throughout the '80s and early '90s. Goldin exhibited her photographs but also presented them in the form of marathon slide shows accompanied by music.

In Tillmans' case, omitting text from the visual field is a bold move, one that could have been radical had the text not simply moved from wall to page. All the typical title, date and didactic information is printed in a pamphlet available at the show's entrance. Viewers can still rely on a verbal scaffold for support; it's just a little more cumbersome to reach.

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