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The Lure of the Idyllic
Sharon Lockhart’s elusive films and photographic works

It’s easy to find Sharon Lockhart’s art merely beautiful. The American artist depicts idyllic scenes such as wintry pine forests and Japanese farmers working in the fields. The new art installment at Deutsche Bank’s IBC-C and a large retrospective at the Hamburg Kunstverein, however, provide an opportunity to get to know the artist better. Her works often involve years of research during which Lockhart pursues her very own purposes, as Cheryl Kaplan has discovered.

Sharon Lockhart, Untitled (Boy with Guitar), 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection

What makes Sharon Lockhart’s large-format photographs and films so complicated is their fierce simplicity. Their beautiful surfaces and haunting presence belie the years of research she spends in identifying and learning about her subjects. Later, she tosses out most of this research while tightly condensing what remains. It’s an extremely reductive way of working that requires an enormous ballooning out and concomitant deflation to arrive at the perfect visual pressure.

Sharon Lockhart, Audition One, Simone and Max, 1994
Sander Collection

"My projects might begin with an image I see or are inspired by a book or film. Research has remained a consistent part of my process in the pre-production of both my films and photos. I love this aspect. I spend a long time working with the people in the film, learning about them and developing a relationship. I research images as well as the film’s subject and ideas, sharing this with whomever is in front of the camera. I make binders for my subjects with images I’ve collected."

Sharon Lockhart,
Lunch Break Installation, Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life,
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003, Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin
Gladstone Gallery, New York Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Over the past year, she was traveling in Maine and New England to work on a photo series and film called Lunch Break, inspired by a sculpture by the American artist Duane Hanson. Hanson’s work consists of a group of hyper-realistic Fiberglas figures of construction workers taking a break to eat lunch. For her own Lunch Break photo series, Lockhardt took pictures of workers at the National Gallery of Scotland as they installed Hanson’s sculpture in a sober white cube. Shooting the film, which is currently in the post-production phase, led the artist into a dusty reality, from work site to work site, from lunch break to lunch break. As Lockhart explains: "I wanted make something about the social world of adults. I did a lot of traveling around Maine, getting to know the nature of industry and labor in the state. Of course, many of my assumptions about what I’d find were incorrect. I’ve learned so much about New England, the place I grew up in." Born in Norwood, Massachusetts just outside Boston in 1964, Lockhart studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute and received her MFA at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

At the moment, a major retrospective of Lockhart’s work is on view at the Hamburger Kunstverein. The exhibition, which runs through June 15, 2008, features her films Pine Flat and NO, the photographic series Audition, Pine Flat Studio, as well as an earlier photographic version of Lunch Break.

Sharon Lockhart Pine Flat (Still from a color film in 16 mm), 2005
© Sharon Lockhart 2005
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York,
Blum & Poe Gallery, LA, and
neugerriemschneider Gallery, Berlin

Lockhart’s Lunch Break appears to borrow not only from art history, but also from the history of photography as social documentary. She seems to refer to famous predecessors like Walker Evans, who worked for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s documenting Americans during the Great Depression. Other works of Lockhart reveal a more formal or serial approach to documentary bringing to mind the German photographer August Sander, who created typological surveys of workers, organizing the portraits according to their type of labor.

Sharon Lockhart, Untitled, 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection

In her work Pine Flat Studio Lockhart has focused somewhat on a typology of adolescents: in constructing Pine Flat Studio, the artist invited local children to a barn in the town center where she photographed them in a manner recalling the tradition of the portrait studio of American photographer Mike Disfarmer(1884-1959). "Pine Flat Studio became a real center for the town. When Disfarmer photographed, he made himself fairly absent, allowing his visitors to create the image of themselves they wanted. I wanted the photographs to be theatrical, where the children represent themselves in a neutral space. I thought the local would be represented through them, but not define their representation. Pine Flat Portrait Studio was a site for us to watch films, make photographs, and visit."

One of the photographs shot in Pine Flat Studio is Untitled (Boy with Guitar), 2005, from the Deutsche Bank Collection. It stands out from the other more rigid, formal portraits by depicting the boy with his instrument in a makeshift recording studio. The boy looks like a wanna-be rock star set against a deep, almost burgundy red background. He’s clearly practicing to be himself. This intimate portrait of a teenager differs from other works that Lockhart made the same year. Untitled (2005), also in the Deutsche Bank Collection, features the same elements: a human figure with an instrument, but this time the large upside-down cello obscures its owner. The atmosphere of the photograph is more cinematic, more narrative.

Sharon Lockhart Teato Amazonas, 1999 Still from a color film
© Sharon Lockhart 2005
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York,
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and
neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Lockhart’s process nearly always begins with a retreat to an onsite location, from the Amazon to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. She uses anthropological "field study" to gain first-hand experience of her subjects. Then, Lockhart hides the background story acquired during her exploratory phase with her subjects. It’s exactly this dialectic of engagement and detachment that becomes the basic principle of her art.

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