“I want to keep the images on a precipice but it’s not one I can easily explain with words.” So says Laura Letinsky, the Chicago-based photographer with exhibitions now on view at the Denver Art Museum and the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I interviewed her for aperture.org; the conversation can be found here.
My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:
Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.
It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….
Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.
This long-planned exhibition, titled “Formalism Is Everything,” became a memorial to Jan Groover after she died on New Year’s weekend, at the age of sixty-eight. Trained as a painter, Groover turned to photography in the early 1970s and created an engrossing body of street scenes, portraits, landscape views, and, above all, still lifes. This last genre rightfully predominated in this career-spanning survey, which encompassed more than three dozen small and medium-size images. Groover has consistently been described as a postmodern photography, but her pictures have never derived their value from illustrating au courant intellectual theories, as the application of the term can sometimes suggest. Instead, on the evidence of this show, John Szarkowski was correct in his 1993 declaration: Groover’s “pictures [are] good to think about because they [are] first good to look at.”
“Changing space,” in her phrasing, is what Groover thought about most. Her signal achievement was to compose scenes in the ground glass—the sheet of glass used for focusing images in large-format cameras without a viewfinder—and thereby undermine the camera’s mechanical vision. In the best of these photographs, what the lens captures doesn’t always match what one sees. Take, for example, her tightly cropped still lifes of kitchen utensils arranged in a stainless-steel sink. Her lens passively records the quotidian scene in front if it, but the resultant images are estranging: Light is rendered palpable, reflections seem as solid as the objects reflected, and it’s difficult to determine how deep the space is that you’re looking into. These images seesaw between legibility and illegibility.
Groover explored in the studio for the remainder of her career, with regular detours out into the landscape. By the late 1980s, she had crafted a thoroughly unique visual language whose component parts were, first, everyday objects spray-painted in monochrome colors and, second, the sheets of paper against which she had sprayed them. Two untitled color images from 1988, hung on opposite walls in the gallery, use the same serrated column as a pedestal for painted jugs and vases. Other objects are scattered behind the column. The jagged edges of the haphazardly painted backgrounds create optical confusion that prefigures the work of such contemporary “abstract” photographers as Eileen Quinlan. The works likewise evoke the painters Groover studied and admired, from modernists like Paul Cézanne to early Renaissance masters who pioneered the compositional use of perspectival depth. The most recent works included here, ink-jet prints from 2003, reduce the visual complexity to offer what seems like a direct homage to her guiding spirit, Giorgio Morandi. In these photographs, chalkily painted vessels repose elegantly in front of depthless black backgrounds. This visual austerity, however, also erases temporal anchors: For all their simplicity, these photographs are radically indistinguishable. They could be from any moment in the era of color photography, and their subjects from nearly any moment in human history.
Forethought characterizes even the earliest, and seemingly most casual, photographs in the show. These two- and three-panel works, which first gained her art-world notoriety in the late 1970s, depict bland roadside environments, and appear at first glance related to the street photography of Conceptual artists like Babette Mangolte or the vernacular-landscape explorations of Robert Smithson. That may be. Yet a closer look reveals the care with which Groover crafted these compositions, despite taking them on the fly as trucks and cars passed in front of her lens. Streetlamp poles divide the pictures vertically like Barnett Newman’s zips, and activate as well the thin slices of negative space between the prints. Passing vehicles function as abstract blocks of color that lend the works a beguiling syncopated rhythm. In these photographs, as throughout her body of work, Groover forges what is at hand into deeply satisfying aesthetic experiences.
Over the weekend my review of Sharon Core’s new exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery was published on Artforum.com. It begins: “What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition ‘Early American’ that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions.” The title of her exhibition references her use of early American painter Raphaelle Peale’s still-life paintings as sources. In browsing catalogues, monographic studies, and journal articles about Peale while preparing the review, I came across one book that seems particularly interesting: Alexander Nemerov’s The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 (University of California Press, 2001). Core’s exhibition remains on view until December 6; for a selection of images that are larger than the ones available on the gallery website, please visit this post on the The Moment, the T style magazine blog.
Published on Artforum.com on November 9, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.
What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition “Early American” that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions. Core’s muse for this body of work, the early American painter Raphaelle Peale, is smartly chosen. In the past two decades, scholarship about the hundred-odd still lifes he created in Philadelphia between 1812 and 1824 has elucidated their strangeness, a fact that gives an added edge to the ten small-scale photographs presented here. As with her earlier series, Core’s pictures are approximations of a painted precedent once removed: Instead of working from Peale’s canvases, which, like Thiebaud’s, reside in museums scattered around the world, Core has re-created with uncanny accuracy color reproductions of his compositions found in books. In some works, she has left behind the strict mimesis of her Thiebaud series in an attempt to “inhabit” Peale’s prephotographic visual imagination. There is a palpable tension between the uncomplicated attractiveness of the luscious, softly lit, exacting images—of watermelons and day lilies, of bruised and rotting apples in a porcelain basket, of a dimpled ostrich egg and strawberries—and the elaborate means by which they were created. Not only did Core have to source the antique bowls, plates, and utensils that appear in the photographs, but she also needed to secure (and, one suspects, artificially age, prune, and otherwise prepare) the produce that takes center stage, as well as arrange her quarry and light it meticulously. The gracefulness of the resultant images masks—but only barely—her efforts, and the hall-of-mirrors instability they instigate.
Published on Artforum.com, September 27, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.
This exhibition is the largest US presentation of Zurich-based Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi’s photographs to date. It is an assembly of archetypes, offering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes rendered with a formal clarity that corresponds to received notions of Swiss precision or bracingly crisp Alpine air. The photographs, taken together, evoke the lyricism that suffuses Roe Ethridge’s landscape pictures and the variations-on-a-theme investigative depth associated with Christopher Williams. Whereas the cases made for the conceptual underpinnings of those two artists’ work are, respectively, plausible and sturdy, it can be frustrating to try teasing meaning from Shahbazi’s constellation of images. One wishes that the relationships between photographic archetypes, printing techniques, and the subjects’ geographic origins were more clearly articulated. (One vanitas wall painting, executed by an anonymous team of Iranian artists after a photograph by Shahbazi, seems not only out of place but also late to the game: Francis Alÿs, among others, has handed off work to local artisans to greater effect.) But what images: Black-and-white prints of butterflies; a fully abstract gradation, from pink to white, soft as cotton candy; an orange-pink orchid set against an azure backdrop; a flat Texas landscape where the depth of field stretches seemingly to the horizon: Like diamonds, each offers a glittering specificity. In years past, her photographs were both smaller and framed; Shahbazi is one of few artists whose work benefits from the increased scale to which success has allowed her access, as this ravishing if imperfect exhibition indicates.