sun 20/04/2014

Juergen Teller: Woo!, ICA | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Juergen Teller: Woo!, ICA

The German photographer's often confrontational images are ameliorated by warmth, wit and charm

Juergen Teller: 'Björk and Son, Iceland', 1993

Crossover isn’t the half of it. Not since Helmut Newton has a photographer operated so successfully in both the worlds of celebrity high fashion and the world of art. In Juergen Teller’s case there is an emotional warmth that is particularly engaging, meaning the art world’s embrace is free of the occasional smugness that comes with its acceptance of the success in the “real” world of someone like Mario Testino. Teller makes everything highly personal, and we respond subliminally to his attachment to whatever he is photographing. There is always a sense of specific biography or autobiography underpinning unconventional poses, his subjects dressed or undressed. And they are naked, not nude, even while art conventions are given a gently humorous but unironic twist.

Teller has collaborated with Helmut Lang and Yves St Laurent, among others. He devises advertising campaigns and is published in the high-end glossies, but his images are far from slick. With Woo!, which features work from the Nineties to the present day, Teller walks that tightrope between having a recognisable style yet also remaining unpredictable. He does not operate with one language, and even the most unassuming snapshot comes with an edge: is that young girl in the water holding a fishing rod or a rifle? There are several images of the very well known, from musicians – including Björk with her son (main image) and an early black and white photo of Kurt Cobain – to stars such as Victoria Beckham.

There is a curious authentic dignity to his imagery which is hauntingly credible

There are also some tender landscapes. The most recent work, Irene im Wald (2012), is a series of relatively small images of an unassuming piece of woodland near his natal home in Germany. The central character, we are told, is Teller’s mother. There is a narrative text underneath some of them in a tiny font; you really have to make an effort first to notice and then to read the explication. The terse sentences are biographical. His parents, perhaps improbably, worked in a family business making bridges for violins. The father was abusive, critical, drunken, and died before his son’s success.

We learn too of Teller’s visit to the woods as a young boy (where he memorably and accidentally witnessed a shocking scene from an art film in process), his coming to London and having the money his mother had secretly sent him stolen, the second marriage of his mother to her brother-in-law, and the apparent calmness of familial relations now. The photographs have a sense of the unforced amateur that only the professional can provide: he doesn’t use digital, but rather old-fashioned analogue flash, even in daylight. There is a curious authentic dignity to his imagery which is hauntingly credible.

With Teller, the risible is peculiarly appealing and the potentially shocking oddly charming; high jinks and comedy ameliorate any possible sting. There is no distinction between the clothed and the unclothed. Vivienne Westwood reclines on a slightly shabby brocaded sofa, drapes herself in a take-off of Manet’s Olympia, and happily seats herself limbs akimbo, entirely naked except for a minimal necklace and facial makeup reminiscent of the 18th century. Her insouciant confidence is immensely appealing. Lily Cole, naked too, her porcelain skin lightly dusted by the sun, is slim, full-breasted and beguiling. The surface on which she is stretching her body seems to be a horrible rubbish heap.

Teller appears as himself. In one image his penis rests coyly against his wife’s pregnant body; in another he is kneeling on a piano in a lush drawing room, presenting his naked bottom for our casual inspection while Charlotte Rampling, clothed, is seated at the piano as though about to play. He also photographs his children. We see him tenderly holding his young son, both widely blue-eyed (pictured above right), and his baby’s face haloed in bubbles emerging from the bath.

All we see of Victoria Beckham are her splayed out legs from the knees down, her feet shod in avant-garde shoes without heels; the monstrous swollen birth that is emerging is a huge Marc Jacobs shopping bag. Kate Moss, inescapably elegant, is crumpled in an old wheelbarrow set against a blue painted wall of corrugated iron; her feet are neatly manicured. (Pictured above centre, Kate Moss, No. 12)

The ICA reading room is wallpapered with decades of Teller’s photographs, stars given the same status as unknowns, recognisable faces next to everyman and everywoman, all slightly off kilter. You don’t need the captions (as so much of photography often does) to be captivated. However niche, it is a whole world.

Teller walks that tightrope between having a recognisable style yet also remaining unpredictable

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