ART EXHIBIT Unknowns have a chance
Being exhibited at the Corcoran is an important step.
By BLAKE GOPNIK
WASHINGTON -- John Lehr, a Baltimorean just finishing his master of fine arts degree at Yale, is a virtual unknown. His photographs have barely been shown. Hardly a word has been written about them.
And his pictures are original, and very good.
That makes Lehr the ideal example for "Closer to Home," the latest version of the Corcoran Biennial of contemporary art. It's the 48th edition of the exhibition, in which the Corcoran attempts to take the pulse of the American art world. Lehr's pictures fulfill the promise of discovery that every survey show holds out but few deliver on. No wonder he's been chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalogue. (His 30th birthday falls on the show's opening day: If he doesn't have a happy one this time, he never will.)
Lehr's color prints don't make an instant splash. They're big and superbly crisp, but they still start off feeling a little staid. His photos document dull stretches of highway or just-built suburban schools, using the foursquare, documentary manner of what's known as the "Vancouver School," after the influential color photographs of Vancouverite Jeff Wall.
Then comes an "Aha!" that sets Lehr's work apart.
Right in the middle of every shot is a strange object that cuts through the vista beyond, as though a piece of minimalist sculpture had taken root in fresh suburban soil. Or maybe it's the monolith from Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" come to tempt Americans to space out again.
A photo of a roadside parking lot is cut in two by a bar of black steel a good 20 feet tall.
An unfussy picture of a banal high school is interrupted by a "monolith" that's white on top, then brown around the middle and scarlet below.
Another photo, of a highway lookout onto a wooded panorama, is split in two by an upright bar or beam of steel that's painted forest brown.
At last, recognition dawns: We're looking at modern roadside signage, but viewed edge-on. An object whose whole function comes from what it puts before your face is shown from an angle that makes it almost unrecognizable, and powerless to do its work.
Signage is so familiar to us that although we get to view only its slender edge, it's hard to keep its full-frontal effects from coming to mind. Even based on Lehr's slimmest of hints, it's easy to imagine the gas and sodas and burgers that are being touted. But that easy familiarity has something flabby about it, too. In the normal course of things, it keeps most signs from fully registering. By skewing our viewpoint, Lehr's art gives the commonplace an enigmatic charge.
In some sense these images are anti-documents. Though their crucial subject is right in the middle of the frame, no effort is made to spell out what it's all about. Lehr uses signs as reminders of the role they play in life but doesn't let them go ahead and play it.
Not all the work in the biennial is as absorbing as Lehr's. But every piece is elegantly made, appealing to the senses and worth a moment's thought.