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Book Review: Remains


Book Review Remains By Ivan Pinkava Reviewed by David Ondrik Remains is the exhibition catalogue printed for Czech photographer Ivan Pinkava's exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. It is a weighty volume: 250 pages with 160 black and white photographs and begins with an essay by Peter Vanous, who collaborated with Pinkava in the conception of the exhibition.

Remains. Photographs by Ivan Pinkava.
Published by Arbor Vitae, 2013.
 
Remains
Reviewed by David Ondrik

Remains
Photographs by Ivan Pinkava
Arbor Vitae, 2013. Hardbound. 250 pp., 160 black & white illustrations, 9-1/4x11-1/2".

Remains is the exhibition catalogue printed for Czech photographer Ivan Pinkava's exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. It is a weighty volume: 250 pages with 160 black and white photographs and begins with an essay by Peter Vanous, who collaborated with Pinkava in the conception of the exhibition. Although the book starts with the essay, I did not read it until after looking through the photographs; I then had the nagging suspicion that I was missing some key information for decoding what I was looking at. The artist's intent is not immediately clear, and while there are hints of a deep-rooted intellectual motif through the work, I just couldn’t access it. Alas, Vanous' dense writing was neither illuminating nor convincing. It did indicate that I don't really remember the specifics of theorist Walter Benjamin's writing, and that Benjamin is perhaps far more influential in the Czech Republic than he is here in the United States.


Remains, by Ivan Pinkava. Published by Arbor Vitae, 2013.
Remains, by Ivan Pinkava. Published by Arbor Vitae, 2013.

So left to my own devices, here's what I came up with. Pinkava's œvure owes much to the past: softly lit portraits, vanitas, Biblical allegories, and momento mori in the Flemish tradition. There are nods to Edward Weston, Joel-Peter Witkin, Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, and famous works from the history of art. The majority of photographs appear to be staged in the same, somewhat cramped space. Whether there's a full person or small object, the space occupied is a nondescript, neutral area that places the subject into a purely visual context. The human subjects are refreshingly ordinary. They are not the carefully sculpted and toned people that frequent American photographers "nude studies," but they are not Arbus' circus freaks and human oddities either. There's some dry humor as well: David, a riff on Michelangelo's masterpiece, is a somewhat pudgy male model -- definitely not the pinnacle of male youth and virility. There are also some interesting juxtapositions that are culturally jarring, most notably the portraits of nude siblings standing next to each other. If nude-sibling-proximity wasn't enough to send the descendants of Puritans reeling, one set is even titled Incest. Despite the taboo title, this particular work illustrates that Pinkava's meaning often relies on the title, and is frequently a meaning that could only be conveyed by the title. There's no other way to derive "incest," from the photo, and we have to take him on his word that the models are truly brother and sister. It complicates the interpretation of a straightforward, even banal, portrait.

Remains, by Ivan Pinkava. Published by Arbor Vitae, 2013.
Remains, by Ivan Pinkava. Published by Arbor Vitae, 2013.

The book itself is a lovely object. The cover is a dark red book cloth that, at various viewing angles, can appear black. It's a trick of the material that is oddly satisfying. The quality of the reproductions is very high, although the prints are a little murky for American standards. Ultimately, Remains is an enigma. I remain convinced that I lack the cultural knowledge to fully engage with what is going on in the images, and one thing made clear by the introductory essay is that complex intellectual and cultural ideas are informing the photographs. Nevertheless, taken at face value it is a curious book, especially for fans of black & white portraiture and nude figure studies.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.

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