When being asked about Dutch portraiture, most people will probably think of photographers like Rineke Dijkstra or Hellen van Meene. Less well known are artists like, for example, Anouk Kruithof (see her Becoming Blue) or Melanie Bonajo, who combine portraiture with a heavily conceptual approach. If you look at Viviane Sassen’s portraiture, you’ll find such a conceptual approach (or at least training), with fashion thrown into the mix. Her work is now on view at Danziger Projects (until April 10, 2010; click on the image above to see a larger version). (more)
Needless to say, simple characterizations of someone’s photography always run the risk of falling way short of the actual work. But I also like being pragmatic. While “conceptual portraiture, with some fashion thrown in” of course is very simple, it’s not such a bad overall description. That which is not included in it is what you can hope to experience when visiting the show.
One of the reasons why I have a bit of a problem with conceptual photography, and especially with conceptual portraiture, is that it truly is aiming for the brain’s intellectual hemisphere. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as much as I am a very cerebral person, when it comes to art, my real preference lies in the non-cerebral - the stuff that my cerebral hemisphere has a bit of trouble with. That’s where the fun, the excitement can be found.
Sassen’s show left me a bit in a state of mixed messages, brain wise. Many of the photographs are quite beautiful, but at the same time they triggered the “Oh, I get it” response, and they never got far from that. When dealing with portraiture, that response does not make me want to look again - simply because I don’t have to. It’s like discovering a secret: Once you know it, it’s not a secret any longer. There is no mystery left. And that’s what had me a bit torn about the show: Some of the images just look too conceptual, almost too forced or heavy-handed.
Of course, you could approach the work coming from a fashion angle and be excited about seeing something fresh (this is what Vince Aletti seems to have done, who is quoted in the press release). Or you could view the work as being done in Africa. This is where this body of work differs from so much other conceptual photography, which really is very one-dimensional, with one way to approach it. Sassen’s work is more open, allows for more interpretations. It clearly is something you want to look at during your next trip to Chelsea.