all words and photos: Francis Chung
Widely acclaimed as one of the most important progenitors of avant-garde rock music, Lou Reed has also long maintained a serious, though less celebrated, engagement with the visual arts dating back to his interactions with Andy Warhol and other luminaries of the 1960s NYC artworld. In more recent years, the former Velvet Underground frontman has developed a strong interest in photography, and DC art enthusiasts were given a glimpse of Reed’s camera work on Saturday evening as a solo exhibition entitled “Romanticism” opened at the Adamson Gallery. A large and diverse crowd was on hand, with many fans hoping to see the artist himself, who apparently had already left town having attended a private, invite-only opening reception the previous night. Still, most who stopped by the gallery on Saturday seemed to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to view a new, perhaps unexpected aspect of Reed’s protean cultural output.
“Romanticism” includes twenty-six untitled photographs made by Reed using a digital camera modified to capture infrared light, a part of the spectrum normally invisible to the human eye. The modestly-scaled landscapes and architectural images possess a strange, surreal beauty, as infrared rendering creates uncanny spatial and coloristic relationships amongst pictorial elements, with details of trees, clouds, and water seeming to “pop” in unusual ways. The title of the exhibition refers to a prominent 18th and 19th century European art movement in which painters, poets, and musicians reacted to the social, cultural, and ecological turmoil of the industrial revolution by celebrating the beauty and mystery of the natural world and the primacy of emotion, spirituality, and wonder as counterbalances to modernity’s pervasive rationalization. Reed’s photographs argue for the renewed relevance of the Romantic ethos in the contemporary, post-industrial world, as one image depicts a solitary figures taking refuge from hyper-urbanity on an eerily deserted riverbed, while another picture is dominated by a ruined castle that testifies to the frailty and impermanence of humanity in the face of time and nature.
Unfortunately, the works on display at Adamson adhere so closely to the conventions of Romantic art that they fail to seem consistently fresh and interesting on an aesthetic level. In particular, the thematic and compositional tropes of Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich are trotted out in a degree and manner that approaches pastiche. Conceptually, however, a productive (perhaps even provocative) irony is generated by Reed’s use of cutting-edge imaging equipment as the means by which to revisit an artistic movement that was resolute in its atavistic skepticism towards technology. With a gearhead’s fervor, Reed has declared that “I love digital. It’s what I’d always wished for. Being in the camera and experiencing the astonishing accomplishment of the creations of life sparked through the beauty of the detailed startling power of the glass lens. A new German lens brings a mist to me…A love that lasts forever is the love of the lens of sharpness.” This statement crystallizes the contrasts and contradictions at the heart of Reed’s current exhibition, wherein an homage to a pre-modern past is achieved with implements of postmodernity, while a Romantic yearning for the mystical coexists with late-capitalist commodity fetishism.