Woo! - Juergen Teller
Exhibition review for www.hotshoeinternational.com (February 2013)
Juergen Teller’s new solo show fills the ICA and represents a large, varied body of his work from the last twenty years. It includes some of the most iconic fashion and popular culture images of our time, as well as intimate portraits of family and friends, and landscapes with personal significance. Famed for being one of the few photographers who successfully straddles both the high-end fashion and fine art worlds, the blur between his commercial and non-commercial practises becomes indistinct here, as it is Teller’s out-sized personality and candid method of working that take centre stage. The quasi-documentary style he pioneered in the 90s with his trademark grunge realism is still very much in evidence, but the spontaneity of the imagery belies the careful construction of the images across both genres.
The significance of one practise directly enabling and influencing the other cannot be overstated. What he derives from his work in fashion is access, sexuality and intimacy, with the majority of his subjects being friends as “celebrated” as he. Sometimes a naked Teller inserts himself into the picture frame, playing with familiar tropes in contemporary art and creating incomplete narratives through an anti-glamour aesthetic. This, along with the purposeful absence of product in his fashion work makes for an interesting paradigm: by vacating the space of the polished end-products, he makes them more visible. His long-standing collaborator, Marc Jacobs notes their gravitation toward the “imperfection of what’s real”1. Though Teller claims to be solely driven by avid curiosity, his oeuvre is interesting as a study of consumer and celebrity culture.
Perhaps as a retort to the accusations of banality and coarseness levelled at him, the exhibition is titled Woo!, a reference to a response of mock enthusiasm from one of Teller’s favourite Will Ferrell characters. Upon entering the first large room, three vast photographs of a nude, 68 year-old Vivienne Westwood greet the viewer. With legs splayed, red hair flashing and her blue eyes exuding a self-possessed confidence, the portraits are startling in their raw sexual content, their lack of artifice and the unavoidable presence of her beauty. Spurning body fascism, Teller never re-touches his images, and here Westwood is practically regal, celebrated rather than exposed. The experience of descending the stairs into the ICA’s small reading room whose four walls are plastered with Teller’s tear sheets, is akin to entering the artist’s imagination. The sheer volume and variety of creative output produces an overwhelming sensual smorgasbord that reveal much about Teller and his anarchic, self-mocking and often humorous excesses. Irene Im Wald takes a turn toward quiet self-reflection. As a “love-letter”2 to his mother, the autobiographical project consists of small unassuming photographs of his mother and the woods in Bubenreuth where he grew up. The storyboard lay-out tracks the suicide of his father with accompanying texts by Teller that are poignant in their attempt to “frame” a difficult and tragic past.
Finally, it is Teller’s work as a portraitist that distinguishes him. The portrait of the famously militant Roni Horn on a New York City rooftop with breasts bared speaks to a mutual trust and shared sense of humour. That his friends tend to be trailblazers in their fields adds to the frisson of seeing through to deeper levels of their personae. Perhaps too it is the mutual recognition of innovative, boundary-defying mindsets that allow him to capture that kernel of unique selfhood. As for the abundance of raucous sexuality generating shock value, the artist merely expresses his transgressive nature, levelling the playing field by activating our human desire to see what’s underneath. Teller’s presence is keenly felt in every image at the ICA and he has successfully produced a cohesive body of work that illustrates his unique sensibility and the sensibilities of our time.