It is telling that the centrepiece of the Juergen Teller retrospective now on at the ICA is a trio of very large nudes featuring Vivienne Westwood, juxtaposed with a saccharine snapshot of a kitten on a table on one side of the room and a stolen glimpse of Kurt Cobain strumming a guitar on the other. Age, it seems, might be playing on Teller’s mind, and this show feels more like a lament than a celebration, melancholy in tone and wistful in intention.
It is fair to say Teller has lost some of the cultural potency he once had. At his peak in the late 90’s and early noughts, he was the ‘enfant terrible’ of the fine art photography scene, smuggling his highly paid commercial and editorial work into the gallery, where, for many, it clearly did not belong. To make matters worse, what marked him out was a snapshot aesthetic (based on irregular compositions, canted angling and consistent over-flashing) that cocked a snook at the technical excellence one might expect from work so sought after by both the commercial and art worlds. When he won the Citibank Photography Prize (now Deutsche Borse) in 2003, his main contender was the peerless Roger Ballen whose monochrome portraits, though classic in form, have had immense influence over the years and were weighty, with meaning and purpose. Teller won for a project interspersing naked self-portraits, offcuts from editorial assignments featuring Hollywood stars, and much, much nudity. Light, one might say. His irreverence was celebrated then, as it is now, but cultural evolution has made what was once infuriating now seem just childish, tired even. Usurped by the likes of Terry Richardson, Teller has lost his edge amongst the young bucks, so is it now, at this juncture that we should look back on his career as influential also?
To the side of the main space with the aforementioned Westwood portraits are a series of small prints of photographs of woodlands, presented in rectangular grids, some accompanied by biographical texts. The images are nondescript scenes, deliberately unremarkable, that nevertheless offer a narrative potential. These are poignant in their banality, resting upon a text to tease out a meaning, hinting at notions of memory, and a world behind the surface, a surface that so dominates the rest of the work in the exhibition. These are from more recent personal projects shot around Germany and Suffolk and are subtle enough to suggest a maturing viewpoint.
There is a small room in which much of Teller’s commercial work has been plastered on the walls; collaged layers of poses and pouts, breasts and handbags. It is an overwhelming experience, heavy-handed curatorially, yet fair in its representation of the transient nature of much of this work. In the main gallery space upstairs, similar work is presented framed and mounted, in differing scales, some quite large. Again, the play here comes from juxtapositions. A man on his deathbed (perhaps) adorned by the colourful balloons of well-wishers is flanked by two huge images of men in differing states of undress and overt homo-eroticism. And so it goes…
Perhaps Teller’s greatest talent is the way in which he gains trust in those that he photographs. He manages to illicit moments of intimacy, be they erotic or humorous that imply a desire to connect on a deeper level. What may attract his sitters is the impish, energetic playfulness which permeates so much of his work. Teller is also undoubtedly an excellent photographer, maybe even one of the best as the ICA claims, but if this exhibition does anything, it is to expose the fundamental weightlessness of commercial photography on the one hand, and the fatuous posturing of art photography on the other. Where Teller lies between the two is up to the viewer to decide.
Juergen Teller, ‘Woo’ @ the I.C.A until 17 March
Words: © Kerim Aytac ArtLyst 2013