Arthur Tress: Fantasic Voyage, Photographs 1956 - 2000
Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, Photographs 1956-2000 is a retrospective exhibition intended to evaluate the long and varied career of Arthur Tress. Tress is an influential and prolific photographer whose principal contributions have helped bridge the gap between documentary and imaginary worlds. It presents an intimate look at his art from 1956 to 2000, tracing a career from early documentary photographs to recent experiments in staged and manipulated imagery. Fantastic Voyage provides a thorough examination of Tress's photography, drawn from the extensive collection of his work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Beginning in 1998, the Museum has received as a gift more than 100 images by Tress from Dr. and Mrs. John B. Knaus of Chicago. Fantastic Voyage opens at the Corcoran on July 1 and remains on view through September 23, 2001.
Fantastic Voyage is organized as an autobiography-representing the artist's personal journey from the real to the imaginary-emphasizing Tress's singular language of surrealism, humor and psychosocial commentary. It includes excerpts from each of his best-known series. In addition, this exhibition features his seldom-seen early documentary work, autobiographical images exploring family relationships and evolving sexuality, and his most recent experiments with photographic distortions.
Born in 1940, Arthur Tress was raised in New York City and took up photography in high school. The dilapidated buildings and freak shows of Coney Island became an early subject and he developed an abiding fascination with Surrealism and fantasy, which he put to work in his pictures. In the late fifties and early sixties Tress began in his work to search for ways to exceed the everyday look of life, to go beyond experience. He photographed street scenes, shop windows, museum interiors, ceremonies, and rituals in diverse cultures throughout the world, seeking to imbue ordinary life with a sense of the extraordinary, of his feelings for the world.
Looking beyond the obviously real, he began to stage his pictures, either by posing people or adding props that related to his increasing interest in visualizing dreams and archetypes. His work entered the studio. Increasingly, Tress stage-directed his images, setting them up in theatrical ways to create fictional and allegorical representations of fears, dreams, and desires. During the 1960s, his photography changed "from the anecdotal to the universal," and in turn inspired the development of fabricated or staged imagery in American photography during the 1970s and 80s.
Tress's whimsical narratives from the 1980s grew increasingly ambitious, combining complex still-life tableaux, which humorously addressed the perils of modern technology. In 1980 he began to construct and photograph tiny stage sets. The Teapot Opera series is a sequence of colorful, visual dramas, built from curiosities and odd props on a miniature French opera stage. Its poetic text and shifting scenes trace the role of magic and wonder in creativity and bemoan its declining significance in the age of reason. The Hospital series obsessively imagines terrifying medical contraptions slathered with multicolored paint in oppressive environments, evoking a dread nightmare of a modern medical Toyland. His growing environmental awareness prompted the Fish Tank Sonata series, photographed constructions of folk objects and kitsch juxtaposed against beautiful landscapes. Requiem for a Paperweight is a millennial comic satire of the generic treatment of workers within an increasingly homogenized corporate culture.
Today the idea of staged or fabricated imagery is commonplace in photography, especially as digital technology makes the "fantastic a part of our everyday vocabulary." Tress's work, above all else, reveals a personal approach to photography, a subjective view of the world that continually reinvents itself while it ponders universal archetypes and myths.