- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Artists typically ex- press a singular viewpoint from which to judge the ups and downs of their careers. When exhibited at a a museum, their works usually are selected by a curator, carefully framed and hung in legible rows within the galleries.

Not so for Wolfgang Tillmans, whose photographs are on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The German-born artist snaps people, landscapes, architecture — you name it — with no consistent theme, size or technique. Most of his images are taped or clipped to the gallery walls rather than framed, with some placed so high they can’t be viewed. They were selected and arranged by the artist, not the museum staff.

The result is a self-indulgent show that lacks focus. Reflective of the information age, Mr. Tillmans’ output is prodigious and seemingly indiscriminate. His subject matter veers from castoff clothing and half-eaten meals to military gear and supersonic jets. His dispersive installation is as unsatisfying as channel surfing or trolling the Internet.

The artist tries hard to come off as a casual voyeur unconcerned with the intentionality of high art. Some of his snapshots resemble amateur stills plucked from YouTube or MySpace, while others simply are enlarged articles from newspapers and magazines. Randomness is emphasized through a mixing of subject matter: An image of grungy punk rockers hangs next to a romantic oceanscape.

However, the artist turns out to be an old-fashioned formalist, capable of capturing beauty in even the most mundane objects, such as an empty butter container or a bridge under construction. From everyday realism, he shifts into self-consciously abstract and arty images, which are among the most derivative in the show.

Co-organized with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the exhibit of about 300 works is Mr. Tillmans’ first American retrospective. It resembles a self-portrait of the 38-year-old artist: his pals, domestic life, political interests and photographic experiments.

Mr. Tillmans, who lives and works in London, began his career shooting the club scene and fashion spreads for magazines. In 2000, the Tate Modern awarded him the Turner Prize, which recognizes artists younger than 50 who work in Britain.

His installation at the Hirshhorn resembles a series of magazine spreads or storyboards, but the visual narrative is largely inaccessible. There are no wall labels to identify each picture. Viewers have to consult a booklet filled with diagrams of the gallery layouts to determine the titles, dates and descriptions of the works. It is an annoyance that adds to the inscrutability of this show.

All this deciphering might be worth it if true originality leapt off Mr. Tillmans’ prints, but many recycle the artistry of previous decades. His “Freischwimmer” series of ink-jet prints with their swooshing colors and hairlike lines ape the 1960s painterly abstractions of such color-field artists as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. His cynical “Memorial for the Victims of Organized Religions,” a grouping of 48 black and dark blue prints that extend around a gallery corner, recalls Maya Lin’s angled 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial minus the names of the fallen. Like Miss Lin’s polished granite wall, the shiny sheets of Mr. Tillmans’ piece reflect the viewer in the process of viewing.

Within his installation, the photographer includes an experiment with video. In a darkened gallery, a six-minute DVD projection called “Lights (Body)” focuses on the ever-shifting movement of spotlights and disco balls in a nightclub. The people dancing below these gyrating mechanisms are never shown. Set to the beat of techno music, the visual effects aren’t dazzling enough to transcend their sources. The piece comes off as a commercial for a lighting-fixtures manufacturer.

From the abstractions, the exhibit leads to a room-sized installation called “Truth Study Center,” where news clippings and photographs are displayed on tables like a high school civics project. Subjects range from AIDS in Africa to homosexual rights and the death penalty. Social urgency is dulled through the tedium of reproduced column inches: Who wants to stand in a museum and read all this stuff?

The issues here could have been addressed more forcefully with fresh pictorial reportage instead of opinions plucked from print publications and the Internet. However, as is evident throughout this go-with-the-flow show, Mr. Tillmans prefers to hide behind his inclusive, associative presentation rather than express a single “truth.”

He certainly is capable of taking provocative and haunting pictures. A close-up of two men embracing is placed next to newspaper photographs of soldiers, alluding to the military’s same-sex “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A beach scene called “Untitled (Gomera)” captures a dog following two crawling figures digging curving tracks in the sand, as if to imitate the shapes of the cresting waves visible at the top of the frame. A spontaneous or a staged gesture? The photograph keeps us guessing.

In mounting his own exhibits, Mr. Tillmans tailors his work to specific gallery settings, and his affinity for architecture also is revealed in striking photographs. “Genom” captures the soft black shapes of socks strewn along the floor of a white hallway to suggest the individuality of the absent wearers. “Himmelblau” aims the camera up at the blue sky above a light well, inverting the rectangular space at the top of the building into a vertical plane, like a door or a window.

Mr. Tillmans tries to deny his innate sense of order in the apparent randomness of his installation. The coy gesture only obscures his accomplishments. It would be interesting to see his best pictures recombined in a more narrowly focused, pointed display.

Somebody call a curator.

WHAT: “Wolfgang Tillmans”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest

WHEN: Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Aug. 12


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

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