From his imposing, stone-faced portraits to his strangely uninflected views of architecture to his blurred versions of nudes taken from the internet, Thomas Ruff has always seemed the least predictable and possibly the most talented among the Becher-influenced school of contemporary German photographers. Therefore a new show of his work is cause for some excitement, especially given that one of the series on view at Zwirner (until 21 June), the “Substrats”, are billed as an outgrowth of the internet nudes, which had seemed to bring the human body back into a school of photography that seemed notably devoid of life. The “Substrats”, though, are far more abstract than the nudes. They, too, are distortions of images downloaded from the internet, but they are images of Japanese anime that are manipulated to the point that they resemble blurry series of Christmas lights, quite far removed from their original subject matter. (Not that that is necessarily a loss—there is so much obviously anime-derived art around these days, why not blur things a bit?) The other series in the show, “Machines” is possibly more intriguing—Ruff has taken 1930s and 40s vintage glass negatives depicting industrial gadgets and manipulated them very subtly, in part by adding colour to the machines, so that the original photograph is emphasized, made ghostly. Ruff’s intervention in these pictures lends the machines an odd anthropomorphized quality, a bit of personality (below, “Maschinen 0946”, 2003). Concurrent with this show are two other significant Ruff events: a major museum survey of his work is at Tate Liverpool until 6 July, and his nudes will soon be published in book form by Abrams alongside an essay by—appropriately enough—the French erotic/nihilist author Michel Houellebecq, he of the delightfully dour novel Atomised.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Thomas Ruff: new work'