Philip-Lorca diCorcia on America’s Sins
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: East of Eden at David Zwirner
April 2 to May 2, 2015
525 West 19th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 727 2070
Primarily known for his staged photographs of seemingly natural scenes from everyday life, Philip-Lorca diCorcia has spent the last three decades considering artificiality, ambiguity and narratives veiled by emptiness. Whereas his previous series have tended to be organized around single motifs — whether prostitutes (Hustlers, 1990 – 92), anonymous street pedestrians (Heads, 1999 – 2001), or pole dancers (Lucky Thirteen, 2003 – 04) — the photographer’s fifth solo exhibition at David Zwirner refreshingly veered towards a less rigid premise, both conceptually and aesthetically, while maintaining the scrupulous execution for which he has been credited.
Entitled East of Eden (2008 – ongoing), this work-in-progress was stimulated by the 2008 financial collapse. Although a moment of great despair, diCorcia realized that there were people who still thought “they were just going to keep getting rich and buy another car.” His intention, therefore, was for the photographs to act as a revelation of sorts, depicting national disillusion and American decline. diCorcia perceived connections between this catastrophic mess and narratives from the Bible. The central motif, to which the series title alludes, denotes the place in the Old Testament from which God expelled Adam and Eve for their original sin. References to other biblical tales, concerning notions such as guilt and redemption, are also invoked in the works, although loosely. Indeed, the photographer recently hinted at the happenstance of the biblical associations, and stated that he felt he was “already stretching it quite a bit.”’ The series was first shown at Zwirner’s London location in 2013 and, given its rooted linkage to the US, it’s perhaps intriguing to find that the exhibition marks the first time that the works have been presented in this country.
Generously spaced out across nine walls, the exhibition consisted of 15 framed inkjet prints, all over three feet at their shortest point. Arranged into two seemingly random groupings, five photographs were presented in the front gallery and another nine in a connected second room. Oddly, the last photograph in the set was hung in a different space altogether, detached from the main display and easy to miss.
The stark layout created a strangely solemn atmosphere, both curious and cold. This mirrored the contents of the photographs on display: whether sprawling landscapes, grave interiors or object- and figure-focused compositions, diCorcia’s pictures evoke the discomfort endured by a scarred America. Gloom was counteracted, though, by the sharpness of diCorcia’s lighting, which added vigor to each frame.
Outward appearances are kept in tact by neat houses, as in Mount Ararat, Pennsylvania (2012) and Stockton, California (2009). Indoors, it’s a different story. Lynn and Shirley (2008) centers on a blind couple at their homely dining table, their faces just missing the spotlight. Their guide dog rests in the background. DiCorcia allows them to gaze towards the camera — the only figures in the exhibition captured in this way. The solitary elderly woman at the center of Iolanda (2011) looks out to the dark skyscrapers emerging from the grim, gray river viewed from her bedroom. Her own somber expression is reflected back to the viewer through the large, rectangular window that consumes the composition.
Although many of the titles make explicit biblical allusions, it would likely be difficult to relate any of these images to the thematic aspects of the series unless the viewer had prior knowledge of the artist’s intent. As diCorcia has previously commented, although the Book of Genesis was a starting point for the work, he didn’t think that this was especially apparent and claimed that “most people would need a press release to work out what the series is about.”
But the symbolism is there, if you’re looking for it, and the handful of pictures that seem to directly make such references are, for the most part, obvious. This is more owing to their deliberately staged quality, rather than a commitment to offering any literal translation of a story. Works such as Cain and Abel (2013) and Abraham (2010) reveal obscure narratives bathed in suspense. The former portrays an unclothed pregnant woman watching two men entangled in an embrace. The latter shows a dart being thrown in the direction of a teenage boy, who stands frozen, statue-like, awaiting the outcome.
In the end, nature reigns. In Upstate (2009), the lusciousness of the sun-saturated tree, which looks like it flourished from out of nowhere, is punctuated by the vivid red apples it bears on branches climbing towards the sky. Sylmar, California (2008), with its panoramic view of dust-colored mountains and earth-filled plains, is practically painterly. The cowboy situated at the corner of the picture may look out to a landscape that has, in fact, been deeply scorched, but it cannot be doubted that the American sublime is still present.
 diCorcia has disclaimed any reference to John Steinbeck’s book of the same name.