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With our unparalleled access to information and exposure to virtual realities, it has become increasingly difficult to encounter the shock of the new and different in the context of a museum. Enter German artist Johannes Brus, who delivers a rare and welcome jolt to the jaded in his first American solo exhibition, now at SFMOMA. The show features a group of unusual prints; photo works, some monumental in size, that look more like paintings and decidedly unlike standard-issue photographs; plus a handful of captivating sculptures.
Believing the richness of photography lies in its material properties, Brus advocates the mishandling of photos until all vestiges of "Sunday suit perfection have gone." He proposes, for instance, working with negatives or prints at night in the bathroom or kitchen, and giving them to children to play with so as to maximize the introduction of mistakes, accidents and damage to the medium, thereby enhancing the possibility of small miracles and epiphanies. In a 1977 manifesto he described his methods thusly: Printing pictures in or out of focus, staining due to shoddy workmanship, allowing dust to fall and fixing it on the image, developing with a sponge, solarizing, manipulating, double exposing and cutting up photos, and applying feathers and varnish to them while not forgetting "to lay some cheese or sausage between the negatives." These aren't the kind of lessons commonly taught at art school, but they have informed, only partially in jest, the approach of this idiosyncratic barnburner of an artist. Brus, an informal adherent of Dadaism, may have also been influenced by Man Ray, who used similar techniques to turn photography on its head.
Born in 1942 into the chaos and rubble of WWII Germany, Brus studied under boundary-breaking, philosophically inclined Joseph Beuys at the Dusseldorf Art Academy (1962-71) alongside classmates such as his friend, painter-photographer Sigmar Polke, and photorealist painter Gerhard Richter, during a period when photography was being reformulated as a vehicle to question art. Primarily known as a sculptor, Brus started experimenting with photography in the early 1970s, mixing chemicals, smearing his photographs with paint, and leaving them on the floor to create his own peculiar alchemy. Disregarding the prevailing orthodoxy, up-ending darkroom techniques, flouting the laws of physics, and guided above all by serendipity, he deliberately blurred and distorted images, leading to the subversive, so-called anti-photography on view here.
In part, the work was a gesture of rebellion against the world order his parents' generation sought desperately to preserve after the war and the blight of Nazism. The goal hardly matters when the end result is this bewitching. The chemical treatments — some might call them abuse — lend his subjects a mythical, out-of-time visit to the other side, alternate-dimension quality, a territory lodged squarely between reality, the subconscious, the supernatural and an acid trip. A scratched print called "Expedition in My Subconscious" (1979) depicts an unlikely convocation of the artist with Freud and Franz Marc, whose names are scrawled on an old photographic image of men on horseback in front of an Egyptian pyramid, perhaps about to be swallowed by a primeval sea. One can only speculate, as things in Brus-land are hardly what they seem. In two photo works titled "Spirit Cloth" (1978), a masked, child-sized figure wrapped in a blanket floats like an apparition above fuzzy, blue-tinged and sepia landscapes.
Like Marc before him, Brus gravitates toward animal mystique: a stealth leopard frozen in place, his prey locked in his sights, is blanketed in spots and all but camouflaged by the tall grasses; "Blue Horse on Capital" (1995), a small-scale sculpture of a muscled pony in Yves Klein blue, appears to have stepped out of the pages of an ancient Greek fable. There's a large, what one assumes must surely be a painting, of a fast-approaching bull elephant coming at the viewer; but no, it's actually a toned 2010 photograph of the magnificent wild creature. With greenish gray trunk, black tusks, eyes eerily glowing, it suddenly charges out of the jungle, shrouded in a pale paranormal mist. Nearby is a cement-toned cast of an exceedingly big, disembodied elephant's head, the ghost of a giant returned from the dead to stalk its killers.
The exhibition may occupy only a single gallery, but its effect is potent, the art provocative, though not in the obvious ways, and the experience singular. Don't miss it.
Through May 26. www.sfmoma.org