Before encountering any show of work by Duane Michals, it’s best to check your cynicism at the door. Eschewing the fashionable cloak of skepticism and complaint, this photographer – storyteller retains, at 62 years old, an endearing and almost childlike optimism.
The format here was familiar: a black-and-white photograph with a text in Michals's awkward, scratchy hand underneath. Both are so intrinsic to Michals’s concept that it's hard to tell whether the photograph is illustrating the text or the text is illustrating the photograph.
Michals entitled this exhibition “Questions Without Answers,” and then, waxing philosophical, proceeded to answer -in light verse- his own impossible queries such as "What Is Love?" "What Is Beauty?" "What Is Death?"
The results veer from the profound touching (" . . . when all is past and future's gone" under a picture of a young man and an old man in What Is Old Age?) to the poetic and absurd ("He who loves the least laughs last") to the unabashedly silly ("Masticklebation," described as "self-stimulation...of the funny bone" and illustrated by a man tickling his bare underarm with a feather). High up on the wall, Michals scrawled an occasional aphorism such as "Dreams are the midnight movies of the mind, where the sphinx recites its riddles to the blind."
Michals's strongest work in the show was also his most personal. Arcadia is a self-portrait taken in a lush garden where he is seen shaking hands with a manifestation of himself as a young man. In the text Michals gives his younger self such Emersonian advice as "true failure is to be afraid to fail" and "now never happens twice and fate is never late."
Sometimes Michals uses models whose overly superficial beauty seems borrowed from a Calvin Klein ad. He can also be long-winded, providing the reader with too much to absorb in one standing-the work might be more appropriate to a book than an exhibition. Yet his rambunctious wit and high spirits are capable of charming all but the most curmudgeonly gallery goer, as the unusual number of scribbled comments in the guest book showed. One woman identified herself as " A visitor from Maine, leaving the gallery warmer and happier."