Photographs of Berlin Wall must, these days, stand alone as historical artworks

December 10, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

As long as the Berlin Wall was there, Leland Rice's photographs of it had a built-in pertinence; they could be read as symbols of much, including the tragedy of a nation which through its will to dominate and destroy brought about its own downfall and division.

Now that the wall is gone and Germany is one again, these photographs -- a group of which are on view at the C. Grimaldis Gallery -- cease to reflect a present reality. Although they continue to have validity as a historical record, they are now much more on their own as pure works of art, and must sink or swim on that basis.

It's hardly surprising, then, that those that work best tend to be the least topical and the most related to 20th-century art rather than history. "Yanks Out" may sound topical indeed, but the scribbled slogan is almost invisible in this arrangement of color that resolves itself into two confrontational faces. Together with a hand holding a gun, they suggest a narrative, but the picture is equally about its unifying patches of yellow.

"Lava," obviously an extreme close-up, has the dynamism, emphasis on surface and all-over-painted appearance of abstract expressionism. One can make out letters and even words, but they do not detract from the abstractness of the image as a whole.

Appropriately, considering the long history of expressionism in Germany, some of these have the emotional punch of expressionism, often achieved by color and/or distortion, as in "Inka." On the other hand, the gentle shapes that seem to appear and disappear behind a veil in "Untitled (White Figure)" bring to mind impressionism and turn-of-the-century pictorialist photography. And in some of these works several things seem to be going on at once: "Blume" has cartoon-like figures that recall Keith Haring along with the lyricism of nature played off against the Nazi swastika.

Not everything here works equally well, however. "Nous Nous," with its specific references to the wall as a symbol of separation and imprisonment, now seems dated, and certain works such as "Berlin Tex" fail to present a coherent and compelling image.

This show is occasioned in part by the publication of a book on Rice's wall photographs, "Up Against It: Photographs of the Berlin Wall." Both show and book possess a certain feel of the valedictory. Inasmuch as the wall has been down for two years now, one wonders what Rice has gone on to, and hopes to have the chance soon to find out.

"Leland Rice: Photographic Memory of the Berlin Wall" runs vTC through Dec. 29 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St. Call (410) 539-1092.

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