City Lights

John Haber
in New York City

Photography 2008: Gregory Crewdson

Anne Hardy, Sherry Karver, and Ron Diorio

Maybe art can no longer believe in Modernism's "make it new," but it can still make things strange. Several artists have returned to settings that Edward Hopper would recognize as his own and that Alfred Stieglitz might have photographed. Each has an abortive love affair with cities and towns, big and small.

Gregory Crewdson captures two years in the life of a small town. It could lie upstate, and yet to all appearances he might have invented it, and in fact Anne Hardy has invented hers. Sherry Karver turns to New York City itself, to see how individuals can elude today's surveillance cameras. Ron Diorio spans rural settings and city stoops, manipulating a painterly blur with digital precision. At least one, Karver, really is a painter. Each manipulates the light in order to see it, and each knows how the apparent clarity of vision can mask the strangeness of what it observes. Ron Diorio's Hotel Worker (Peter Hay Halpert, 2007)

Back to New York

It took portraiture to get photography going—the surprise of capturing human beings before they vanish forever. Gustave Courbet may have drawn on frank depictions of nudes and landscapes, and wars gave photography a greater urgency. Still, when photography entered museums, for a while its history became very much tied up with New York's. It naturally reflects the themes of prewar American painting. It may also explain how, as a French critic famously complained, "New York stole the idea of the avant-garde," but even before Abstract Expressionism.

Now that everything seems an appropriation, artists were bound to look back to earlier forms of modernity, including staged photography. And after 9/11 and the National Security Act, maybe the same shows were bound to obsess with the act of looking. I do not know whether to call the settings for Hopper's invasions of privacy public or private, but even their quaintness seems contemporary. Between cinema and Photoshop, only the means to examine those settings is getting complicated.

Urban photography continues regardless, of course. Elsewhere this spring, H. and D. Zielske presented "Megalopolis Shanghai" through long exposures that heighten the crispness of highway ramps and the harsh color of artificial lights. If I had any doubts that globalization is producing an awful, futuristic landscape, I would have set them aside. A month before, Michael Schmidt almost convinced me that Berlin has not gotten any warmer since the wall came down. And he is photographing his friends.

Anne Hardy penetrates interiors, but one could take her most striking stage set for yet another megalopolis. The stacks of stereo speakers suggest a dense array of skyscrapers that Le Corbusier would have loved, at least until he saw a couple of stuffed animals peeking through. The sleek black towers have a geometry that plays against her love of disorder. Elsewhere the latter can devolve into a lecture, although a fashionable one. The touches of cuteness, like those animals, also exemplify an unwillingness to let go and an eagerness to please. Still, one has fun comparing the created environments to possible lifestyles and environmental art.

For each work, the photographer drags what she can into her London studio for a low-tech fairground. As with the speakers and the color black, most of her vacant rooms would look quite at home in Williamsburg. They also come ever so close to cohering. One includes a target riddled with holes, as the focus of a confined space. Another rests a dumbbell on the kind of wheel that a carnival geek might spin. It becomes the platform for a ride or perhaps a workout session, and it also returns to her theme of disorder and chance.

Compared to all these, a return to the New York area cut through some of the glibness. Crewdson, Karver, Smith, and Diorio play freely with light and dark, precision and blur, narrative and landscape. They all treat cities and towns as a space for people, evoking both an older America and newer economic and political divisions. Some lean more toward a critical eye or toward complicity, but they also allow sympathy. All rely on a camera as part of the process, and some end with a painting. Mostly, however, they make it difficult to draw the whole distinction.

Flirting with the townies

Gregory Crewdson may finally be learning to look. It must sound like a strange thing to say about any photographer, but especially one with so much time on his hands. His new photographs follow a small town through two years—from winter into summer and from winter into summer again. It must sound stranger still for Crewdson, but for quite the opposite reason. Who else stages and lights a scene with such obvious artifice, rather than observe what is there?

He has plenty of competition. Jeff Wall stages his scenes, and Thomas Struth does not, but both photographers are all about whether art can impose order on life. Andreas Gursky glorifies the obsession for order in others, Thomas Demand fears it, and Hardy has fun with it. Crewdson, however, takes the obsession with staging an act and then looking at it as his theme. In his interiors, ordinary looking people carry on in strange and seductive ways, the kind that made him an obvious choice for "Family Pictures" not long ago at the Guggenheim. Johanna Drucker calls them a "flirtation with the culture of mass production," and she is right about the culture. For Crewdson, however, the object is more a fetish than a flirt.

Gregory Crewdson's Untitled, Winter 2006 (Luhring Augustine, 2008)Crewdson has turned to landscape, but he still prefers theater to nature. At nearly five feet in height and nearly seven and a half feet wide, the inkjet prints have the amplitude of a big screen but the aspect ratio of a common camera. A man trudges through the snow right beneath a movie marquee. A couple laze in the woods, and a boy looks up into the mist, toward the sunlight, God, or maybe ET. From its decrepit main street and well-worn automobiles to its distant hills and modern offices, the small town promises little but still wants to have it all. Even the cycle of the seasons has to play out twice over, as if eternity were not enough.

The artist has worked outdoors before—by the looks of it, in the same town. He still brings to it the crew of a feature film. He still dares one to piece together the unstated narrative and how he possibly pulled it off. He repeats some of his own tropes, too, such as a naked, pregnant woman where she could not possibly belong. Someone should write an essay about that image, in artists from John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage to Justine Kurland and Catherine Opie. Like them, Crewdson is ever so shocked by the violation of ideal beauty but all the more eager to associate women with the cosmos.

Still, something has changed: these scenes invite contemplation. Every scene has people, but one has to seek them out to invade their privacy, and it hardly seems to matter whether one finds them. Spotted through windows beyond a garage roof or playground, they do not flirt back. A woman in her bathroom reveals herself, but only in a bedroom mirror. Where landscape before served primarily as stage set, here nature has its own theater, with its seasons as the acts.

While no one could say that Crewdson has lightened up, he has come to accept the light. He softens the former contrast between heavy fog and icily modeled human beings. Between the extremes, he brings out the texture of leaves and snow, and he lets the eye wander to the edge of the frame. Look long enough, and one might find a sunset as well. He still enjoys the setup, like the light on a couple's faces behind the wheel, when the car's headlights should leave them in darkness. Crewdson appropriates Edward Hopper, but Hopper himself makes a pretty respectable observer.

Rush hour

Speaking of observers, someone may be watching this very minute, but how much does anyone really see? Like E. E. Smith her "Street Watch" series at the same gallery, Sherry Karver pursues passers-by in a relentless city—and the camera trained upon them. Before long, one starts to look at one artist through the eyes of the other. However, they assume a very different distance from their subjects.

Karver has no trouble at all filling in the blanks. Does art offer a window onto the soul? Karver surrounds one instead with the babble of cell phones. She works from photographs of common spaces—a crosswalk, Grand Central Station, or a gallery with an image on the wall very much like her own. Then she alters and compresses detail as she paints, in oil glazes that heighten the color and the sheen. However, the glazes also add and conceal something more.

One may not notice the text right off in such a colorful crowd. Once one spots it, however, one cannot stop looking for more. The hunt for each fragmentary biography or monologue becomes a game. It can sound banal, anxious, or comic. A man, "confused about his sexuality, can't decide if he is in the closet, if there really is a closet, too afraid to even open the doors of the closet." Here in New York, neither loneliness nor absorption requires a night café or a half-empty theater.

Karver no doubt recalls the blurry photorealism of Gerhard Richter, spying on spies by Jane and Louise Wilson, or Struth's self-absorbed gazers. She is not quite in that august league, and the device can grow tedious or condescending over successive shows. She does, though, assert a more personal connection to strangers.

In a recent performance, people suddenly froze in place in Grand Central Station. I looked again to see if Karver had staged something like that, but no. Yet that indoor space still embodies the ambiguity of public and private lives. Like her heavy lacquer, its familiar grandeur allows both distance and empathy.

Her characters could easily fall under the gaze of others, including Smith. One might mistake the grainy textures of Smith's oil prints for painting, Karver's glossy surfaces for photographs behind plastic. The first watches, although the camera artificially defines an event. The other overhears, although she supplies the words. It becomes difficult to interpret either as a solemn commentary on executive and corporate spying, when so many spy cameras are in the hands of artists, and so many lives are slipping away. It is hard, though, not to peek.

Behind the blur

Even when the individual says put, the camera's gaze has its limits. In Ron Diorio's photographs, one remembers most the blur. It run to the yellow-white of a steamy summer afternoon or the yellow-red of a street lamp at night, even when it does not center around a source of light. It collects around bodies and faces, and it brightens the entire image. Skyscrapers or the concrete wall outside P.S. 1 seem to melt. One can imagine Diorio in Photoshop, shielding the identity of his subjects while reaching for something beyond them.

Then again, the colors sometimes create firm, painterly geometries rather than fade away. Shadows bring a pilaster forward and heighten its architectural style. Manipulation here means not removing information but adding it, and the more one looks, the more Diorio appears to have added. It can include figures with an unnatural scale and frankness, like the woman in a window arranging her hair, breasts ever so clearly exposed. For all one knows, however, it might include anything. This work took time.

Diorio says that he shoots quickly and casually, "harvesting" rather than composing. He also shoots in low resolution, normally more suited to the Web than to an art gallery. It brings him closer to the action. Then he draws on whatever he needs. As with Carla Gannis, one could call the process digital painting as much as appropriation. As with her, too, images can seem rooted in old movies and an older art, like the Empire State Building or the nostalgic glow of city streets at night.

A Puddle Jumper might come right out of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his search for the "perfect moment." The naked woman might come straight from Hopper. So might a hotel worker in white shirt and black vest, and so might the planes of glowing but sober colors. On the other hand, the hotel worker leans more closely into the picture plane than Hopper's waiter. One spies the naked woman from a distance rather than, as with Hopper, stepping somehow across suburbia and into her home. This makes them more accessible and less archetypically lonely, but also more plainly subject to a viewer's gaze.

It sure looks like the New York that I know—museum-goers idling outside P.S. 1, a man sleeping on a stoop by day, or students in a subway at night. However, Diorio obviously likes the distance created by his digital filter. He calls the show "Around Here," but the surroundings around here seem distant and treacherous. As the song goes, "they all look the same" but "something radiates." Of two scenes set in the country, one shows a woman outside a home carrying a child into largely empty space, as if fleeing in a horror film. All the staring has a debt to Hopper, but also to those post-9/11 surveillance cameras and CSI.

Still, the nostalgia seems genuine, and even the strange distance carries a hopeful feel. Most scenes, like the purple light above a schoolyard, lift one's eye upward. One photograph, in the catalog but not in the show, actually represents an open skylight. Postmodern technique aside, Diorio seems quite comfortable identifying with the male gaze. The titles speak of Nights Like This but also the Harbor of a Great City, and that sleeping man in a baseball cap may look like a bum but is, to trust the artist, on his Day Off. I can put up with a lot of retro warmth myself when it comes to New York, especially when a technique this painstaking invites one to look at it with a fresh and skeptical eye.

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H. and D. Zielske ran at Von Lintel through May 17, 2008, Michael Schmidt at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through April 12, Anne Hardy at Bellwether through May 17, Gregory Crewdson at Luhring Augustine through May 3, Sherry Karver at Kim Foster through April 26, and Ron Diorio at Peter Hay Halpert through February 23.


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