Entering Juergen Teller’s exhibition, Woo, at the ICA, one is struck by three monumental photographs. The (arguable) centrepiece of the show, they feature iconic punk-fashion designer Vivienne Westwood pulling shapes, in the buff, on a luxury sofa.
As an opening statement, these images pack a punch. Golden and gaudy, she poses like a naughty Victorian; unabashed, in the central picture of the triptych, she opens her legs.
Hands on thighs, she grins at the camera. These pictures are not seductive, though she looks coquettish in the third. Nor are they some Lucien Freud-esque exploration of the unconventional beauty of the human form (a la the notorious Benefits Supervisor Resting). Rather, like many of Teller’s pictures, they are a bit of fun.
The images in this show oscillate in tone. Rude absurdity jousts with intimate, loving family snaps. The seediness, or maybe discomfort, of fashion is laid bare. Throughout them all, though, is a tenderness – or as Juergen Teller himself would have it, “curiosity.”
The relationships he shares with his subjects are invaluable; audience already distanced from subject through the photographer’s mediation, Teller puts us a step closer than we’d normally be. Through his friendships, the audience is invited to experience a candidness not normally found in fashion photography. As well, his unwillingness to distinguish between the personal and public, commercial and artistic, creates in this show a sense of contiguity.
Still lives here are presented alongside high fashion advertising campaigns (over the years his work for Marc Jacobs has yielded the most interesting, and diverse, results), but nothing seems incongruous; the tonal consistency remains steady.
Of course, this consistency is not solely down to Teller’s ability to engage on a personal level with his subject, but also to his distinct, overexposed aesthetic. He approaches his subjects with a camera in each hand, bombarding them with flashes. It seems like an aggressive approach to a kind of hypnosis, but it works; through his over-exposure he exposes everything.
The show itself is split fairly evenly across the two main galleries at the ICA, the aforementioned Westwood photographs (alongside a rather special portrait of Kurt Cobain, and a vast photo of a startled looking kitten) downstairs, and two more rooms full above it. The real heart (or ‘brain’) of the exhibition though, lies in the reading room in the café. This small space is – literally – plastered with images from Teller’s career; the range is stunning, both because of its volume and because of the array of shots on offer. In this room the pictures range from the graphic, to the familial, fashion to self-portrait. Many of them are repeated in the upstairs gallery, but the contexts seem worlds apart. It is in this room that Teller’s practice is most comprehensively documented, the themes and consistencies in his work most apparent.
Perhaps because of his unusual approach to the commercial versus the artistic, there are times when it’s hard to take in exactly what Teller is driving at, other than the image itself. But this is not without its own value, as is perhaps illustrated best by his incredible portrait of Bjork and her son, swimming in a natural pool in Iceland. A beautiful image of mother and child, it is as relevant as the pictures of a contorted Kristen McMenamy, writhing as if possessed, or the melancholic, understated photo series Irene Im Wald.
Teller’s abilities lie in his self-professed curiosity, and his ability to expose honesty in any circumstance. There is no great divide between his commercial work and his art – the two, in fact, inform one another. It is Teller’s ability to capture the right image that unites and motivates them. Dissecting each picture may not always yield satisfactory results, but as a catalogue of images the exhibition is three-dimensional and generous. The potential tension between art and commerce is neatly dismissed, as under Teller’s eye each becomes the other. The whole, here, is probably greater than the sum of its parts, but that’s fine.
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Woo runs at the ICA until March 17th.
Words: Augustin Macellari