While any Juergen Teller show is a significant event, his current exhibition “Ukraine” at Lehmann Maupin seems to have tiptoed into town. I was certainly late off the mark and missed an opening where the gallery had hired my favorite street food vendor, the Hallo Berlin food-cart, to dispense bratwurst. Darn! Anyway without any advance word I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see the show last week.
The surprise begins the moment you walk in the door where an installation of display cases dominate the space while just a few photographs dot the walls. The genesis of the show was a state commission to shoot images of the Ukraine for the Venice Bienniale, but as the press release notes: “In Teller’s Kiev the membrane between harsh economic reality and obtainable fantasy is surprisingly thin and these pictures represent a place where beautiful girls wait to be discovered in a place where the desire for luxury has reached a fever pitch.”
Mixed in with a diverse selection of recent work, the show is really just an update of what Teller has been up to, and it amply shows Teller’s greatest strength – the ability to make an arresting picture with little of the production support usually relied on by successful fashion photographers. He’s great at girls, he’s great at snapshots of the famous with a titillating edge, but there’s a sneer that’s been in his work since the beginning that’s in danger of getting out of hand.
That said, there are plenty of good pictures, the best of which I thought was a simple but arresting photograph of the model Lily Cole perched on a rock. I don’t know if Teller has ever seen the famous Maxfield Parrish it echoes, but I never thought I’d ever compare the schmaltzy populist American illustrator (whose work at one time hung in one out of every three homes in America) with the brazen and decadent favorite of the art-meets-fashion elite.