When so much contemporary art is overwrought or under-thought -- shamelessly confusing irony with meaning and quality, and delivering the equivalent of self-conscious one-liners -- the black-and-white photographs of German artist Jochen Lempert arrive like aspirin for a chronic headache. They relieve the pressure and allow one to see, and contemplate, again.
Lempert largely photographs the natural world: ocean waves, plants, birds, insects, reptiles, seashells and taxidermied specimens. He has amassed a huge photo archive that visually undergirds such abstract concepts as motion and time, photosynthesis, and human and animal typologies, where he establishes a conversation of formal associations. Notions of order and randomness permeate his images.
That the riches of Lempert's vision are on view both at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis and the Rochester Art Center is a treat. Traveling to Minnesota, the Hamburg-based artist brought a small crate of prints and curated each show on the spot, swapping out images and creating new combinations.
Before beginning his work as a photographer in the mid 1990s, Lempert spent a decade as a filmmaker with the German collective Schmelzdahin ("melt away") while also studying entomology in Bonn. That film experience is reflected in his photos, which frequently employ a serial format.
In "Un Voyage en Mer Du Nord," a row of six photographs taken on a North Sea voyage depict the movement and time of breaking waves. In "Continental Drift," six images depict an Italian volcano erupting. "Oiseaux-Vögel" consists of a grid of 12 images of birds. "The Skins of Alca impennis" features 43 images of the taxidermied heads and necks of the extinct bird, which Lempert photographed in natural history museums across Europe.
There are also images of pigeons, rain, leaves, donkeys, tiny seashells, water bugs and flying ants copulating in the sky. Humans enter the picture frame, too, in his series "Symmetrie & Körperbau (Symmetry & Architecture of the Body)." In a pair of images subtitled "tattoo, fish" the arm of a young tattooed girl is compared with a fish with an odd appendage.
Lempert also explores nontraditional printing techniques such as photograms, where he places natural specimens directly on photographic paper, then exposes them to light -- a technique used by Man Ray and other early-20th-century photographers. In "Four Frogs," a 16-image series, he placed four tiny frogs on each sheet of paper, creating a random black and white pattern.
To make his foliograms, Lempert places an actual specimen in his enlarger's film-negative carrier, then projects light through them onto the photo paper below. "Transmission 1-6" shows the distinctive vein patterns of six different leaves at a very large scale.
Humor permeates many of the images. In "Zur Photosynthese (On Photosynthesis)" a flurry of leaves seem to be suspended beneath an overhanging branch like a whirling dervish. It is all the result of a leaf blower.
A palpable casualness belies the specificity of the content and process of Lempert's images, which range from relatively small to large (40 1/2 by 30 inches). He uses a 35-millimeter camera and hand-prints on unpressed, heavy silver gelatin paper, giving his images a feel that provokes an involuntary yearning for the pre-digital era. Adding to their immediacy, the work is unframed and attached simply to the wall, a no-nonsense presentation.
Understated and uncommonly beautiful, Lempert's photographs are in distinct contrast to the work of the German Becher School photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth whose large-scale, digital portraits or images of crowds of people in public spaces are often manipulated into a hyper-real state.
The simplicity of this work is provocative. In a sense, it is a visual counterpart to the "slow food" movement -- a reaction to the excesses of the contemporary art world. These smart, quiet images get directly to the heart of things.