Published in Artforum, summer 2006. For additional images from and information about the exhibition, click here.
For her New York solo debut, Italian photographer Luisa Lambri presented a four-year minisurvey consisting of just seventeen photographs, and the restrained selection underscored the importance of editing to her practice. Lambri spends considerable time in each of the modernist buildings—primarily private residences—that she photographs, taking hundreds of pictures. Yet only a few of these are ever printed and exhibited, and they are not conventional architectural photographs in the vein of, say, Julius Shulman’s glamorous images of Case Study Houses or Candida Höfer’s typological surveys of magnificent interiors (both of which would otherwise seem obvious precedents here). Lambri’s idiosyncratic documents, often depicting individual windows or glass-curtain walls, are more somatic than panoramic, attending closely to the phenomenology of the built environment. Most architectural photographs posit the viewer as disembodied voyeur, but Lambri’s images place the body in space. Her pictures register her slight shifts in position as well as subtle changes in light, and both characteristics give her grouped images a sense of the passage of time in a manner that recalls Jan Dibbets’s “Interior Light” studies.
The main gallery featured images of Luis Barragan’s Casa Barragan (1947), Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art (1966), and Konstantin Melnikov’s Melnikov House (1927), although only architecture buffs would recognize these buildings in Lambri’s shots. All six pictures of Barragan’s Mexico City home, taken in 2005, focus on one window, which is covered by a wooden shutter divided into four cabinet-like doors. Lambri treats this window like a camera lens, opening the doors to varying degrees in order to admit different amounts of light. In four pictures, a prolonged exposure blanches the image, and the light surges between the cracks with an otherworldly radiance. The possible permutations are seemingly infinite, and endlessly rewarding. In the other two, the surrounding wall reasserts its solidity, framing a garden view that incorporates some pink flowers, the only bright color in the exhibition.
Three photographs of a single window at the Melnikov House offer a similar opportunity for back-and-forth comparison. Here, however, the light remains more or less consistent, and it is Lambri’s movement—identified by a point of view that shifts slightly with each shot—that becomes apparent. Two diagonal wooden sashes crisscross the elongated hexagonal opening and fragment the picture’s composition into rectangles, trapezoids, and triangles that interlock like puzzle pieces. Nearby, a single image of a window at the Whitney Museum, taken at a slightly oblique angle to the wall, likewise emphasizes the complexities of the iconic, off-kilter aperture, with its deeply recessed, irregular trapezoidal windowpane, which angles away from the building instead of lying flush with the facade. Picture plane, gallery wall, window, and the gridded exterior of the building across the street create a series of optical twists and turns that slow the eye’s movement around the photographic space.
Three pictures of Edward Durell Stone’s Mandel House (1934), hung in a smaller room, created a spatially complex tableau reminiscent of Sabine Hornig’s photographs and sculptural installations. The images depict what looks like a twin-chambered dressing room in which two mirrors—one circular, one rectangular—rest against opposing walls while a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a door spans the distance between them. The elegant photographs, which were here arranged like stand-ins for the mirrors and window, were taken from different oblique angles and amplify the disorientation caused by the room’s intricate play of light and reflections. One must work conscientiously to stitch together an understanding of the three-dimensional space fractured by this photographic hall of mirrors, but doing so offers one of this exhibition’s many pleasures.