Greco-Roman Wrestling

Photographer Mimmo Jodice grapples with the past, but the past proves elusive.

Mimmo Jodice's photographs of Mediterranean ruins, artifacts, and archaeological sites, now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, would never pass muster in Fodor's. The typical tourist shot whispers in your ear: "Look how nice these things are--wouldn't you like to be here?" Jodice's photographs, by comparison, almost seem to declaim, "Even if you were standing at this very spot, you would not see what I see."

Jodice infuses his subject matter--the temples and sculptural artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome--with a sense of impenetrable mystery and awe. Unfortunately, when one recovers from the trance and begins to wonder what has taken place, the real seeing begins and inures to the disadvantage of work that seemed impressive until a moment ago.

The problem is one of focus. By employing modern photographic techniques that imbue public monuments with private concerns, Jodice views the classical past through the lens of twentieth-century alienation. But he simultaneously attempts to understand the classical world as that world understood itself. It's as though these photographs are always behind a conceptual scrim--clear enough for you to feel Jodice's love for and devotion to the Mediterranean region, but not clear enough to help you understand what he's trying to say about it.

Jodice starts with black and white negatives and then works in the darkroom to expand his tonal range. The result is a selective use of solid blacks and whites with almost every conceivable shade between those extremes. Jodice also manages a kind of visual vibrato effect. A photo of a Roman sculpture at a Flavian amphitheater in Naples fairly shivers, as if a chill went down Jodice's spine as he took the photograph, and the resulting shot has recorded his emotion. Jodice might be saying that the classical past vibrates ceaselessly for those who can receive the right frequency. This is a bit heavy-handed, like a musician who, in order to achieve a dramatic effect, relies on flashy increases and decreases in volume, rather than subtle variations in pace and phrasing.

Even as Jodice revels in his ability to draw forth more shades of gray than you thought were possible, the expanded range, because it's not tethered to a coherent point of view, merely helps him to embalm what he describes. He's an undertaker with all the newest techniques for making the dead person seem freshly dead.

A photo of a bronze head at the Herculaneum National Archeological Museum of Naples jars, because Jodice has rendered one of the eyes entirely black with an irregularly shaped pupil which is, in stark contrast, chalk white. The effect is curiously modern, as though the bronze walked into the photograph direct from one of Man Ray's darkroom experiments, or from the end of Bonnie and Clyde, where the bit of business about a pair of dark sunglasses with one lens missing seemed a metaphor for the absence of insight.

A photo of the Roman Baths at Ostia Antica in Rome recalls the deserted Italian streets and town squares that were part of the disturbing paintings surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico completed shortly before the outbreak of World War I. An arcade is haunted by the foreground shadow of a human figure or monument that is just beyond the picture frame. Jodice captures a sense of foreboding here that has nothing to do with Greek tragedy and everything to do with existentialism.

Jodice's quirk is that he captures this sense of foreboding in broad daylight--a waking dream to de Chirico's nightmares. Jodice might be telling us that this is a characteristic of our time; that the horrible happens under the noonday sun. We can see televised wars in our living rooms, and the fighting in Bosnia respects neither peace accords nor the diurnal rhythms of nature. (The Peloponnesian War, one might add, was not big on decorum, either. Wars usually aren't.)

In a set of photographs of athletes at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Jodice attempts to capture the classical world as that world understood itself. The athletes are poised for movement, as though ready to start a race or receive the baton from a teammate. Jodice's sense of composition here is sure: He orchestrates shadows, indirect light sources, and asymmetrical figural placement to suggest impending action. These athletes are alive, and they speak to us across time of the delight of competition. Jodice is at his best here. One wonders why, when he evidently has such a gift for evoking movement, he spends so much time and energy elsewhere embalming.

That undertaker's art is back, on full display, in Jodice's earnest but dull photograph of the temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias, Turkey. This is the Cliffs Notes version of classical civilization: All is harmony, order, and dynamism carefully held in check. The Ionic columns in the photo are in disarray, but we are reminded of classical ideals of harmony and proportion by the circular motif that appears in the foreground and is echoed throughout the shot. There is a misterioso texture about the thing which comes from Jodice's vibrato effect, but the impression is of something added on; it's not an integral part of what's happening in the photograph.

Socrates, that most Mediterranean of all Mediterraneans, was once examined by a face-reader who found the philosopher to be a lover of food and drink, and a womanizer to boot. Socrates admitted that it was true and added that only his capacity for reason allowed him to resist those urges. Jodice sees the classical devotion to harmony and order, but is incapable of (or not interested in) delving into the almost erotic longing for knowledge that informed that vision. This is the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, yet Jodice's dreamlike vista is about as sensuous as a glass of cold spring water. If his intention is to explode the stereotype of the Mediterranean region as the place where Dionysian bacchanals took place, and where the promise of wine, women, and song always hung in the damp summer air, he has, perhaps, succeeded too well.

Granted, it's not easy to make the monuments of the classical past come alive. Artists must choose whether their aim is to view the past through the lens of the present or to view that past afresh, as if all the intervening history never occurred. To do the former is difficult, the latter extremely difficult. Jodice has attempted to do both, and there's a quality of endlessly questing here, along with a palpable sense of wonder. However, because the work seems conceptually fuzzy, the results are fuzzy as well. Jodice takes on a formidable task, but succeeds only in entombing the classic past that he so reveres.

Mediterranean, through February 21 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.

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