Simon says
Photographer's work merges art, documentary

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Taryn Simon's photograph shows live HIV growing in a laboratory at Harvard Medical School. – Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum

The photography world is generally divided between artist photographers and the lower class of documentarians. Seldom do their paths cross.

But Taryn Simon (who holds a degree in environmental science) has not only managed to merge the fields but also has achieved international acclaim, even while her work remains essentially that of a journalist. 

Simon lives in New York City and is married to a filmmaker (Gwyneth Patrow's brother). She is represented by Gagosian Gallery in NYC and currently has a show of new work at the Tate Modern in London.

Three of her major projects are on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, through Jan. 1. The show was organized by curator Lisa Hostetler, with the Helsinki Art Museum and the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum.

Perhaps what allows Simon's projects to drift into the art world is her heightened awareness of how the photograph is the perfect vehicle for examining subjects that share a complicated relationship with the real or the true. Distortions of desire and meaning, misread information, the struggle to interpret "evidence" arise from living in a complex and desensitized world. 

Photography, with its split personality (both real and not real), can be a potent tool when put in the service of examining topics with similarly elusive moral grounds. It's like a great liar sparring with another great liar. What we get in the end is theater, a kind of framing and staging of the struggle toward truth and knowing.

Simon allows both the subjective (personal view) and the seeming blunt reality or data to co-mingle actively. 

But no matter how big and pretty, no matter how well-lit and color-saturated, Simon's work tilts to the conventional. It is straightforward, illustrational, indexical and project driven. The images require expositional text to keep them afloat. This is not a bad thing. It is just the nature of the work. 

Each of the projects on view started out as a book. Even while occupying an enormous space in MAM's east galleries, the serial history of the page and packaging stays paramount. While the three projects fully represent their own troubling worlds, they share the sense of an insistent looking, prodding, wanting to see and know. 

"Contraband" features more than 1,000 six-inch by six-inch images of forbidden things taken from airline passengers over a four-day stretch at JFK airport. They range from the predictable – weapons, drugs and vegetables – to odd materials such as cow dung toothpaste and deer blood.

This project is interesting for the diversity of things seized. We sense the vast play of once-distant cultures and belief systems meeting in an airplane in the sky: wants, needs, dreams all laid out in Simon's rows of small square, elegant specimen pictures. Even in the 21st century, there's traffic in rituals and magic (deer penis) as well as commercial objects of status and power, such as fake Louis Vuitton handbags and Viagra. 

Encasing the images in rows of narrow rectangular plexiglass boxes forces us to read them as abstracted sentences, a continuous movement of hidden things, passing across borders, time and space. 

The second body of work, "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar," is a series of 37-inch by 44-inch chromogenic prints from 2007 showing places and things to which we do not normally have visual access: the CIA's art collection, an exploding warhead test area, a great white shark in captivity, a marijuana crop research grow room, etc.

The photographs are elegant. Similarly to the contraband images, Simon heightens the sealed off nature of these places. The camera peers in and consciously composes an image that serves as a meditation on the oddness of the enterprise.

A cryopreservation unit, for example, becomes an almost abstract composition of grays. We would not know a body was being frozen in this device without the text. The picture elevates the poetry and hope of the endeavor by pairing big concepts of human myth and desire within the equally strange, cold clinical language of technology.

Likewise, when Simon photographs a vial of active HIV, she presents it as both fact and mystery. Here is this deadly potent human plague held in what looks like a tacky plastic bottle. Simon suspends this paradox in front of us. The ironic looms large in all of her work. 

Her third project, "The Innocents," from 2002, holds the greatest emotional pull and the images are the most captivating. Large-scale prints (48 inch by 62 inch) are fused behind glass. Each one tells the story of a person who was wrongly committed of a violent crime and served a lengthy prison sentence before being exonerated. Simon photographs these maligned individuals at the scenes of their arrest or the site of the crime. 

The portraits are fully staged and lit to enhance the disjuncture between the individual and the place that has now become so wrongly central in their lives. There is both a slick commercial beauty and sadness in the pictures as each testifies to a malfunctioning legal system and the subsequent human toll. We see that these people will never fully recover from the mistake of their prison sentence. 

Again, Simon uses the photograph to reveal something normally not accessible. Like her other bodies of work, these images are both true and false. They hold incomprehensible yet stubborn facts created by a world of contradictions.