The Suspicion of Life: Paul Kohl’s Photography

April 23rd, 2016  |  Published in *, April 2016

A quick cyber-jaunt reveals surprisingly little about photographer Paul Kohl, but the internet did offer one interesting morsel, stored within the digitized archive of the Crimson. A 1974 review by Susan Cooke included a couple sentences about Kohl, whose work had been featured in a group installation of artists decidedly unburdened by the parameters of photographic normalcy in the mid-seventies. Cooke’s review is a polite piece of criticism, combining vigilant analysis with a sense of omnipotence that is almost obligatory for campus art critics. Of Kohl’s work, Cooke writes that he captures “beautifully balanced compositions of glowing geometric shapes.” The title of the review? “Photography of the Future.”

But, of course, the future in 1974 is now our distant past, and it seems the internet is in need of another review of Kohl’s work, which is now on display at Iris Book Café in a retrospective titled Mistérios Luminos, curated by William Messer.

Considering that every photograph displayed is in black and white, it’s striking how vivid they are. Kohl’s imagery often courts both the exotic and the familiar, and many times they act as foils in the same image. In one work, the stark heap of a bull’s body is composed in the lower center of the photo, its head cocked upward to gaze at rows of bright sheets drying on clothespins. The bull is so dark it looks as though Kohl simply placed black paper beneath the photo and cut its shape out with a blade.

The photographs in Mistérios Luminos were taken in Japan, India, San Francisco, Lisbon, Tokyo, Connecticut and other places, but peregrinating through the gallery space does not make one feel like a tourist. Photographs taken on vacation possess an amusing paradox; although usually the very purpose of the pictures are to be shared with others, they rarely are able to mobilize the attention and imagination of those who see them. Kohl’s photos invent mystery because they don’t immediately contextualize themselves. They instead surveil everyday sights, and occasionally these glimpses forge foreign environments. In one formalist image, a honeycombed building is offset by a window framing a woman’s sunlit arm. In another, we are presented with poultry dangling in a market, rendered in an almost ironic chiaroscuro. Another photo is a close-up portrait of a woman in a hammock, her illegible expression caught behind the screen of the mesh pattern. In images like these, the exhibit offers a visual buffet of seductive curiosities.

One image—which is not particularly striking—depicts a tiny fish contrasted against a granular texture, its breathless body swimming only in a waterless static, twinned by its small shadow. It rests just outside the shade of a human shadow. Kohl’s oeuvre seems to revel not in life, but in the suspicion of life, documenting not what is there, but what might be left behind.

And although the exhibit spans the early seventies to the current year, it’s incredibly void of anachronisms. Unlike Cooke’s suggestion in her review so many years ago, these photos don’t belong to a specific time—not the future, the past, or the present, but in a kind of elusive memory. Perhaps most importantly, these photographs do not demand your attention, instead relying on the possibility that these are the kind of photos that most greatly deserve it.

–Zack Hatfield

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