Previous projects have taken Sara VanDerBeek to American cities such as Detroit and New Orleans. For the photographs in her first one-person exhibition at Metro Pictures (all works 2013), the Baltimore native was granted extended access to several museum collections of Classical and Neo-Classical sculpture in Paris, Rome and Naples. In the past, VanDerBeek has shown photographs of sculptures and assemblages that she herself constructed and then destroyed. She displayed the sculptures along with the images of them for the first time in her 2012 Hammer Museum Projects exhibition in Los Angeles. At Metro Pictures, photos of antiquities, many figurative, were presented with modular cast-concrete sculptures.
In the first of three galleries, four large framed prints of marble nudes in the museums were accompanied by a tall pillar, split in half vertically, with one section at each end of the space. Pink Nude features a cropped view of a female figure, its back, arms, thighs and breasts articulated faintly against a crisp white background. In Pink Nude, Blue, the same figure is abstracted by a series of tinted Plexiglas layers that the artist placed over the print, reducing the carved features to a flat, geometric totality.
The focus of VanDerBeek’s exhibition shifted from anatomy to architecture in the second gallery, where the viewer found eight massive photographs on the walls and a row of 9-foot-tall concrete columns bisecting the room lengthwise. The digital prints, which picture an oxidized metal wall with a delicate pattern of rust, are behind sheets of sleek, mirrored glass. Looking at the photographs, one saw oneself and the columns reflected in the opaline surfaces, setting up an abrupt contrast between contemporaneity and historicity. While the columns served to visually connect with the artist’s previous studio-based photographs of her own assemblages, they failed to convey the monumentality of the Baths of Caracalla, which the artist has said impressed her during her research.
If this gallery was meant to conjure grandiosity, the next room was more intimate. A selection of small, lapis lazuli-tinted photographs included the diptych Roman Women VIII, which shows a laurel-crowned maiden; the dark, slick bronze of the bust glimmers beneath a semitransparent layer of cobalt Plexiglas. In Roman Women VII, a headless and armless female marble nude stands against a field of vertical bands created by a colonnade. The figure appears to be dancing in some trancelike Dionysian state. It is perhaps in this picture, more than any other work in the show, that the artist’s relationship with these objects is most lucidly and tenderly revealed.
Where Nan Goldin drew connections between Louvre masterworks and her own decades-long career in the 2011 show “Scopophilia,” VanDerBeek wished to evoke a “feedback loop”—as she said in a recent Aperture interview—in which “sculptures generate images and images generate sculptures.” This methodology was more successful when VanDerBeek was using her own sculptural works as photographic subjects. The current photographs and sculptures seem strangely alienated from their ancient sources and from one another.