Stephen Shore: Something + Nothing
Curated by Todd Levin
Sprüth Magers, London
26 November 2013 - 11 January 2014
Review by Lily Le Brun
Stephen Shore’s first solo show in London for over six years, ‘Something + Nothing’ at Sprüth Magers, takes its title from John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Something’ and ‘Lecture on Nothing’. ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’, the composer and philosopher wrote. Like Cage, the American photographer finds beauty and meaning in details, and has been capturing images of the everyday for over 60 years. With this shared respect for profound simplicity as his focus, curator Todd Levin has collected together over 60 of Shore’s works in a fresh and intriguing show that draws from the breadth of his distinguished career.
Choosing work by theme, Levin has arranged the photographs into 10 asymmetrical clusters and two vitrines over two rooms. Every piece is framed in identical and immaculate white frames, allowing size, medium and chronology to become unimportant, relative to the subject and the aesthetic. They fit comfortably together, nestled in satisfying thematic and visual configurations against a thick pale grey stripe that runs along the white gallery walls.
Postcard sized vintage colour prints hang cheek by jowl with Shore’s latest and larger works, including those from the series Ukraine (2012), which has never before been exhibited. One group collects together Shore’s photographs of meals he’s eaten - oily hummus in sky blue bowls from Jerusalem in 2009, a packaged ready-meal perched on a New York City hob in 1972, a vat of stew in a cramped Ukraine kitchen in 2012 - while another shows us portraits, and another parked cars.
Teasing out recurring interests and compositional similarities, the show demonstrates Shore’s consistency of vision and egalitarian attitude to his choice of subject. Although undoubtedly facilitated by the commitment and vision of the curator, it reveals Shore’s understanding of colour and light as well as the formal qualities of picture. Working almost exclusively in colour throughout his career, the elegance and restraint of some of these photographs make plain his contribution to the elevation of colour photographs to an artistic medium, rather than one associated purely with fashion and advertising, as it was at the start of his career.
The conceptual artists of the 1960s and their adoption of the camera as a tool with which to systematically record social and geographical landscapes had a great impact on Shore. He pioneered the diary-like snapshot and empty landscapes that are now so prevalent in contemporary photography, while capturing the vernacular, the everyday and the ordinary in a way that is not dissimilar to historical documentation projects, such as Dorothea Lange’s photographs for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression in 1930s America. The vitrine in the first room makes his concern with the process of photography immediately obvious, displaying a Magritte picture within a picture, ‘La Condition Humaine’ (1935) next to Shore’s photograph of a landscape pictured on a billboard within a similar landscape, ‘U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973.’
Yet despite their similarity to factual records and artefacts, Shore’s photographic glimpses are not without narrative or emotion. The categorical arrangement of the exhibition heightens the impression of the sensory experience of an individual that the photographs convey, as well as a creating a compelling cultural map. Showing the world as he finds it, Shore’s photographs, seemingly of nothing, carry silent messages. We are allowed to seek the music and poetry for ourselves, and it is sweeter and more profound when we find it.
A quote that I like very much… comes close to explaining my attitude about taking photographs…. ‘Chinese poetry rarely trespasses beyond the bounds of actuality… the great Chinese poets accept the world exactly as they find it in all its terms and with profound simplicity… they seldom talk about one thing in terms of another; but are able enough and sure enough as artists to make the ultimately exact terms become the beautiful terms.’ [Stephen Shore]