Out of Focus: Photography

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Critics' choice
© Katy Grannan, courtesy Saatchi Gallery, London
'Anonymous, Los Angeles, Boulevard 11', 2009, by Katy Grannan
Free

After sprawling collections of Chinese, Middle Eastern, American, Indian, German and British art at his King's Road venue, Charles Saatchi has turned his attention away from geographical surveys to the consideration of a single medium, the first of which is also a biggie: photography.

Like those previous stabs at depicting a nationality or a vast region through its artists, this exhibition is necessarily sweeping, generalising and scattershot, just a toe-dip into the many factions, forms and focuses that make up what William Ewing delightfully describes in the catalogue as the 'dis-United Nations' of the 'World of Photography', including 'the vast continents of 'Commercia', 'Documentaria' and 'Amateuria', as well as the smaller islands of 'Artistica' and 'Artcontemporanea'. Would that this show had been broken down into such categories, however spurious, because the results – to bastardise the already disingenuous, overarching title – are thematically and conceptually 'Out of Focus'.

If you want to know where photography is at right now, this gathering of 37 disparate photo-practitioners won't make that picture any less blurry. In fact, you might be better off asking where the hell isn't it, given that photography happens increasingly through phones and sundry other handheld digital devices, while the images themselves reside on social-media timelines, server clouds or hard drives, rather than as physical print-outs.

Maybe that's the point of 'Out of Focus': that our collective mind's eye is so clogged with a photographic morass that there's no way to force a clear path through the thicket, you just have to learn to deal with the clamour and confusion. As it is, however, this feels more like another carefully paced rummage through 'some stuff I've bought' by the deep-pocketed collector.

Yet, I'm happy to admit that walking the first few rooms is to experience the best possible use of Saatchi's considerable spaces. The solo displays of Los Angelean portraits by Katy Grannan, coloured landscapes by David Benjamin Sherry and John Stezaker cutouts have the feel of strolling, respectively, along a coked-up boulevard of freaks, junkies and out-of-work actors, then up through a mountainous acid trip to nirvana and finally on a paranoid comedown in which everyone's faces melt into each other.

The device of devoting a gallery to each artist doesn't last and neither does the elucidating high it provides. An interlude of arcane Americana by three very different artists doesn't do any favours to Mitch Epstein's wonderful ruminations on the US obsession with oil, Luis Gispert's pimped-out paste jobs of consumer culture or Matthew Day Jackson's handsome rock portraits, all face-like in their anthropomorphic formations (you might not get that unless you read up on them).

Without anything to connect the dots from old-fashioned silver gelatin prints to pixel-filled ink jets, I began instead to judge these photos solely on whether their frames contained enough to sustain prolonged viewing, or whether they needed a back-story to complete them. Call it the beauty-over-brains principle, also known as the windows or mirrors dichotomy in which 'window' photographers act as conduits for looking at the world, while 'mirror' photographers are more interested in reflecting their own ideas and the medium itself.

In the former, 'window' category are Pinar Yolaçan's striking portraits of stiff-upper-lipped women of a certain age, each wearing bibs or blouses fashioned from meaty fronds and frills that wondrously mimic their chicken-skinned necks with real animal off-cuts and raw offally adornments. In the latter camp, you need brains rather than brawn to appreciate the complex, nuanced political layers hiding in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's revelatory exorcisms from a picture archive in Northern Ireland, while an encyclopaedic knowledge of both twentieth-century art and history wouldn't go amiss in order to get all the references in the Baader-Meinhof-meets-Malevich collages of Meredyth Sparks.

On and on it goes, the only other discernible strand being Saatchi's obvious penchant for sculptural photographs, including a 30-metre roll of photo-developed paper tumbling off the wall by Mariah Robertson, the pseudo-objects of Marlo Pascual and Sara VanDerBeek and the occultish cardboard cut-outs of David Noonan (who I'd never have considered a photographer). It's as though the galleries and the proprietor are saying 'is all this flat stuff really that important, shouldn't it take up more room?'

This seems to be the sole purpose of Mat Collishaw's disturbing but unedifying mosaics of black-and-white photos from 2002 – to fill the admittedly giant wall spaces – but like these, much of this work has been hanging around unloved and un-shown for an awful long time, so presumably needed a good airing sooner or later. The smattering of really recent acquisitions feel much fresher, with Michele Abeles and Daniel Gordon collapsing digital and analogue techniques together, representing what some people call our post-photographic age. While this show concludes that there is almost no such thing as a 'straight' photograph nowadays, it makes little sense of those artists who are struggling to redress this lack of focus, F/stop.

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Monica

Disregard the fatuous and barmy description provided by the Timeout reviewer and go see this exhibit! The gallery is a delightful space and the photography presented here is a diverse array of contemporary work. The California portraits are guaranteed to impress. I highly recommend "Out Of Focus".

patricia

An amazing exhibition! Such good artists. And the gallery is a beautiful space. Loved it!

Ben

Absolutely fantastic exhibition... If your in London and you don't go to this show, sell your camera!