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Laundromat Locomotion: Process more compelling than product

Coral Gables Gazette, August 25, 1999

I swear I don't have it in for the Miami Art Museum. I realize I've been a little hard on them, but they bring it on themselves by showing work like Laundromat-Locomotion by British photographer Steven Pippin, the latest installment in their New Work Series.

Here's the premise of the show, briefly: Pippin equipped a row of washing machines in a laundromat in Bayonne, New Jersey to take photographs through their abraded, round windows. He connected trip wires to their shutters and photographed himself moving in front of the machines. The results are meant to be an homage to Edweard Muybridge, whose studies of human and animal motion are renowned.

So there's one twelve-image series of photographs showing Pippin walking by in his suit, another of him walking by in his undies, another of him walking by in his birthday suit showing off his considerable photographic prowess, and another of him walking backwards in a suit. What do you do before you wash your clothes? You take them off. Get it?

Pippin, I'll bet, did very well in art school. He's hard-working, ambitious, technically astute, and aware of his art-historical precedents. One series, for which he mounted a horse and charged it in front of the washing machines, took real courage. He's the kind of student you have to give an A to even if something profound is missing from his work.

Nevertheless, a sad irony remains: that the work of Muybridge transcends investigative labor and enters the realm of art, while Pippin's work does the reverse. The issue is not the quantity of effort, which is enormous. To build a camera is hard enough without making twelve of them out of washing machines. But the Rigmarole of Photography (as one of Pippin's exhibition catalogues is titled) is its least interesting aspect, especially when divorced from good results. Painters whose work is nothing but technically skillful have been rebuked for four hundred years; Pippin has basically joined an old, failed tradition.

It's telling that the most interesting objects in the show are not the photographs but the apparatus used to make them, which is also on display. The cameras, flashes, and film holders have a charming antique quality. They are arranged in a case constructed by the artist which no cabinetmaker would take seriously, but the sincere labor behind it calls up the shade of Joseph Cornell. It is here that Pippin most resembles Muybridge. His effort to make a box for his equipment has none of the self-conscious artsy-ness of his photos, and the results come much closer to being good art.

Everything else is drowned in the tiresome, smirking smarminess in which young English artists have been specializing since the commercial success of Damien Hirst, famous for his sliced cow in formaldehyde and giant pieces of spin-art. Certainly not every work of art has to be serious, but it ought to be worthy of serious regard. For all of his wit and labor, Pippin comes off as the consummate art student and no more.

In light of its clench-jawed resistance to showing realist painting and sculpture in the New Works Series, MAM should realize that big photographs, Duchampian irony, and concept-driven art are speedily going the way of the cavorting nymph slickly rendered in oils. Because of MAM's rigid ideas about what contemporary art is supposed to look like, the New Works Series is degenerating into a platform for hollow postmodernist antics.

Steven Pippin: Laundromat-Locomotion will be on display through October 3 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 West Flagler Street. Call (305) 375-3000 for more information.

Word count: 599

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