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“Light Years” brings together Photography and Conceptual Art

Last post, I mentioned that there are some great photography shows up around Chicago right now. While the Art Institute of Chicago offers a glimpse of how artists are utilizing the medium today in ”Exposure”, the museum is also offering a thorough look at photography’s recent past. “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977” brings together more than 140 works by 57 artists in the first major survey to explore photography’s role in the conceptual art movement – a show that is exclusive to Chicago.

In “Light Years,” the photograph is secondary to the act of creation. It acts as a stand in for the ideas or unfolding of events that are the true focus – the “art” – of each piece. Process takes precedence; the photograph becomes a means to document its execution. As Sol LeWitt said, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

John Baldessari, Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), 1973, Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago

These “machines” are running at full capacity in “Light Years.” Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) brings art to a literal level. The photos themselves are striking in their simplicity, featuring pale orange balls suspended against a deep blue sky. But the intent here is to focus on the process, and not the results. Douglas Huebler takes a scientific approach. His work consists of artistic experiments based on variables or durations of time; the finished pieces include a written text detailing his hypothesis and photos documenting his results. Not all these endeavors are so meticulous, however. Alighiero Boetti’s delicate defacement of a Warhol print echoes DuChamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa, cleverly creating art by analogy.

Alighiero Boetti, AW: AB = L: MD (Andy Warhol: Alighiero Boetti = Leonardo: Marcel Duchamp), 1967, Courtesy of Colombo Collection, Milan

If there is one criticism to offer, it’s that the show’s ambition is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. In putting together such a large collection of artwork, often accompanied with heavy doses of text in explanatory labels or inherent to the work itself, museum fatigue sets in early. Since the exhibition’s layout splits it roughly down the middle, my advice would be to explore half, take a break, and come back for the rest with fresh eyes.

Though it ranges in tone from humorous to contemplative, the work in “Light Years” is held together by a common thread – the ingenuity of artists who utilized photography to develop and explore new method of thinking about art.

“Light Years” runs through March 11. For museum hours and ticket information, click here.

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