“Why do press releases so frequently describe art as something that ‘blurs distinctions?’” a friend asked me this weekend. The question was prompted by photographer Juergen Teller’s show “Paradise” at Lehmann Maupin. The gallery described his work as “blurring the distinction between commercial and non-commercial work.” “It seems like an odd purpose for art to have,” my friend continued. “It begins from the position that those distinctions need to be blurred.” In Teller’s new exhibition, which features 14 large-scale photographs of two nude models in the Louvre, blurring of one sort or another occasionally becomes clear, but I question if genre-transcendence is lasting enough to be its purpose.
As a strategy for producing something new, mixing sensibilities and genres has a few more pluses than my friend’s off-hand comment acknowledges, though the original sentiment is no less true. While Dan Flavin’s light pieces may have challenged minimalism’s interest in the distinction between the constructed and everything else by blurring those edges, not every effort engaging similar strategies finds the same success. Certainly, if this blurring were the only intent behind Teller’s latest body of work picturing naked women in the Louvre it would not succeed. For one, it’s hardly new. The photographs fit squarely into the well-known genre in photography which combines a commercial fashion sensibility with the equally saleable fine art aesthetic. Even if the distinction-blurring the gallery described above was accurate, it would still only describe an artist whose work simply appeals to multiple markets, a category which would include people Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson and Richard Kern.
Most often, galleries cite distinction-blurring as a way of establishing an artist’s expression as unique. Of course, Teller is hardly the first person to photograph nude models in museums, though those more closely aligned to the fine art world—Spencer Tunick, Vanessa Beecroft—tend to work with many models at once. Teller’s strongest work, however, achieves individuality, primarily for its rich glamorization of the vulgar, the strange, and the disturbing. An iconic photograph of Bjork either eating or puking black spaghetti and his shot of former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham’s legs hanging out of a Marc Jacobs bag do not leave a viewer quickly.
But are the photographer’s new grainy shots of the nude, young and middle-aged models Raquel Zimmerman and Charlotte Rampling among his more successful works? From the website reproductions you’d think he’d achieved far more than he actually has. Online the models look oddly zombie like, their imperfection and smallness carefully juxtaposed against the precise beauty of the Louvre’s marble statues. Even the photograph itself has an amateur sensibility to it that’s smartly jarring against the museum. In person however, the largeness of the print erases the faux newby aesthetic and amplifies the artist’s fine art strategies to a point of obviousness. The two models in a cluster of sculptures are at once artfully staged and casually shot, but they reduce the work’s merit to that large reproduced arty magazine object. The nude models take on clichéd, art-historical references and make shots capturing only the art seem more interesting.
Whether they are engaging or not is up for debate. While I tended to enjoy Teller’s documentation of the art more, I responded most to an image in which Charlotte Rampling stands next to an extended marble figure. Objectively speaking, it’s not the best photograph in the exhibition, but I liked that the thin line of a cast shadow behind both the model and sculpture resembled the marks of a classical drawing. Though likely not intentional, the photograph appeared to pay homage to much older art-making techniques. In fact, in this work the distinction between fine art aesthetics and the magazine readiness of Teller’s models blurred in a way that legitimately created a unique vision. I’m not convinced it will be a particularly lasting one, but very little aesthetic blurring can boast that goal.