Exhibition Review: Marie Tomanova’s "Young American"
By Leah Pfenning
If the objective of photography is to expose a truth, Marie Tomanova turns a mirror on the youth of America, revealing with unfettered reflection: This is what you look like right now, what we look like right now. The Czech-born photographer opened her first solo show at the posh gallery space of The Czech Center on the Upper East Side. Curated by Thomas Beachdel, Assistant Professor of Art History at CUNY, Hostos, the exhibition features over 200 portraits of American youth as captured by Tomanova over the past several years of the photographer’s time living in New York City.
Walking into the gallery you are ushered into an intimate theatre where two short films, which are more or less well-curated slideshows of Tomanova’s work, are playing on a loop, aptly underscored by Bowie’s “Young American.” From there guests wander up a luminescent red spiral staircase emerging into the main gallery; a single open-space room replete with a crowd redolent of the surrounding portraits and a DJ playing an array of familiar hits from, “Enjoy The Silence” by Depeche Mode to, “Too Good” by Drake and Rihanna. Fourteen of Tomanova’s prints flank the walls of the gallery while dozens more of the photographer’s portraits cycle through a projection on the wall; an installation and ceremony tantamount to the modernity of the work itself.
The young photographer immigrated to the United States 7 years ago, first touching down in North Carolina to work as an Au Pair. While her background was in painting, Tomanova connected with photography through exploring, preserving, and shaping her identity as an immigrant in America. Much of the artist’s early work deals in self-portraiture, the majority of which are shot in the nude in pejoratively compromising positions. Coming from a rural region of farmlands in the Czech Republic, Tomanova felt exploring this new American scape through nature, reflection, and her own physical form made the most sense in terms of leading her to an understanding; a belonging.
Tomanova admitted that there was a shock around discovering the culture and pace of American life - both good and disappointing, but she was really rattled into a new possibility when she moved from North Carolina to New York City. She recognized the powerful voices amongst the youth and how they were using that power to incite change. The individuals featured in Young American are the strangers who one may recognize as the young avant-garde, lithe bodies reminiscent of a Bowie-era cool; but with the gravitas of today. While Tomanova’s portraits don’t capture every face in America, her representation of the culturally influential visage of American youth reveals its complex duality; illuminating that we’ve learned more from these young people than we can begin to refute.
Although the people Tomanova shoots are recognizably “trendy,” the work goes deeper than glorifying a modern aesthetic, exposing how the radical chicness of her subjects acts as an enduring reflection of today’s America. We’re now tasked with unlearning the elitist dogma that divides us– redefining ‘the self’ in a way that calls on us to celebrate everyone’s story while upholding the liberties to choose the how of how we shape ourselves.
In an era of ineffable circumstances, Tomanova’s generation has the weight of inscrutable re-definition on their shoulders. One doesn’t have to be woke, just conscious, to comprehend the turmoil of the state of the world and the seemingly impossible ideal of solidarity. Tomanova’s work creates a space for immediate reflection–a meta-contemporary sort of genius. She captures diversity and fluidity within her subjects in a way that effortlessly calls attention to the humanity of our time and foreordains its influence. And until we can recognize and achieve the all of that humanity, Tomanova delivers us a temporary mercy with liberty and justice for art.
The exhibition is running from June 28th – August 10th 2018 at The Czech Center.