Review: Michael Wolf at MOCP

Michael Wolf‘s photographs of urban life challenge the seemingly balanced dynamic within such dyads as private/public, collective/individual, and real/artificial. The photographs, all taken in 2007, are devoid of a horizon line, and feature closeups of tightly compressed apartment and office buildings in Chicago. The city’s architecture, after all, is famous for its experimental history, which includes–but by no means limited to–the introduction of the world’s first skyscraper. The dressing of steel bodies with sheets of glass allowed buildings to multiply their vertebrae and reach the heavens as much as it engendered a voyeuristic fascination by the newly transparent structures. So it comes as no surprise, therefore, that Wolf has chosen Chicago, with its history of what could be described, perhaps, as the world’s first urban peep show, as the site of his latest project.

The elimination of the horizon line removes associations of architectural photography with postcard-perfect harmony. Furthermore, the gradual physical proximity towards the images turns each one from a meticulous Agnes Martin grid to a claustrophobic if seductive stacking of realities a la Barry Frydlender. Like the former, the images initially allude to a sense of universal perfection that transcends humanity; and like the latter, they convey a too-close-for-comfort jittery and cluttered existence. Together, the effect is as mesmerizing as it is unnerving. The simultaneous peering into multiple lives within a single frame is decadent and perverse, but nonetheless perfectly symbolic of the obsessive truckling to reality television that has come to define us. Wolf’s vision is a supra-technological nightmarish extension of Robert Frank‘s The Americans, perhaps the first exhibition to challenge Rockwellian visions of national utopia. More than ever, Wolf seems to say, we have become disjointed on an interpersonal level, occupying insulated, self-referential pods within which a personalized version of reality is constructed, and unified solely by an unspoken agreement that to each his own. The collective, it appears, is no longer greater than the sum of its parts. And reality, as such, is no longer universal.

Wolf’s body of work is can be viewed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through January 31st.

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