The Function of a Photograph: The Disconcerting world of Roe Ethridge
Roe Ethridge: Sanctuary 2 at Andrew Kreps
September 6 – November 2, 2019
22 Cortland Alley, between White and Walker streets
New York City, andrewkreps.com
The Roe Ethridge exhibition, Sanctuary 2, that inaugurates Andrew Kreps new Tribeca gallery space sent me right back to that creepy, troubling feeling of nearly 20 years ago when I first experienced a photograph by this artist.
It was in 2000 at PS1’s Greater New York survey exhibition. The medium-sized, close-cropped color portrait of an attractive smiling young woman seemed initially unremarkable. But what was this lone photo doing in the context of such provocative young art? With her flawless skin, perfect hair and make-up, she could possibly be a model. Indeed, the photograph’s title was Ford Model Kathryn Neal (1999). Was it appropriation art, or a found rejected headshot? It was puzzling because although it seemed slickly banal like a commercial photo, there was something weird about it. Her expertly painted meticulously lipsticked crimson mouth was outsized, completely taking over the lower half of her face. There were dull reflections on her pupils that gave her eyes an unfocused quality, and the otherwise perfection of her look made her frozen smile seem increasingly, hideously, grimace-like, as if she had been produced in an android factory. What was the point here? And failing to be able to reach a conclusion, was that the point? Though we probably encounter hundreds of photographs per day, so few of them make us question their very purpose. I had never heard of the artist, but I remembered his fish eggs first name.
A challenging sense of disorientation links his uncanny disparate seeming photographs across years and motifs. Sanctuary 2 is a large show, extending to the scale of the works within it: Some of the 17 dye sublimation prints on aluminum extend six feet. So the fact that Ethridge has no signature style can be daunting. Even though the artist is a straight white, cis-male, these photographic works are genre fluid. It isn’t simply that Ethridge blurs the lines between art, fashion, and editorial but that he questions what constitutes the boundaries between those categories in the first place. There is, however, a precise subversion of the way we are accustomed to responding to photography.
Verrazano Bridge (2019), typically doesn’t seem particularly special at first, except for one detail that grows increasingly startling. In this almost, but not quite colorless, large photo (there is a little patch of green grass on the left and a small blue sign on the right), the bridge arcs distantly in from the left past a London plane tree, whose trunk and network of bare branches frame the picture. Every detail seems precisely, formally placed, from the way the end of the bridge disappears into a line of fog just past the midpoint, to the way the rectangle and arched hole of one of its towers is located almost in the center of the picture. Our view is from a sidewalk, separated from the water of the Narrows Strait by a parallel fence decorated with metal cutouts of sea creatures. The manufactured regularity of the fence bars stands in contrast to the organic expansion of tree branches at the top.
All this ordinarily might make for a nice but unremarkable picture, but right smack between branches and water, exactly even with the tower of the bridge, is a little dark pigeon in midflight. Not blurred but highly defined, it is so disconcerting because of its perfection and stillness both in clarity and placement. The picture is so formally calibrated it seems staged, or photoshopped. But no, the gallery informs us Ethridge simply waited, taking hundreds of photos, until that particular breathtakingly banal moment occurred.
In contrast to the too perfect natural moment photos (like the almost six-by-four foot White Duck (2014), whose titular occupant floats in a pond with exactingly even wavelets interrupting its reflection), are the ‘flawed beauty’ pieces such as Oslo Grace at Willets Point (2019). What appears to be an attractive young woman with a long dark braid wearing either a pink flight attendant’s uniform and hat or a high fashion outfit, poses on an orange plastic tarp next to a still life of fruits and a soda can, right in the muddiest possible rutted parking lot leading to CitiField, its bullpen gate in the background. There are large pools of stagnant water, parked cars, and a random guy in a red hat walking away in the distance.
Gender and racial subtexts abound in Ethridge works. The name Oslo Grace may be familiar as the famous trans, non-binary model, which makes the gender of the person posing suddenly an additional ambiguity. One of their hands is buried in the still life and the other seems to be holding a wineglass filled with, of course, rosé, adding to the litany of red accents in the photo. Everything except Oslo Grace is relentlessly squalid, and yet there they sit protected from the mud on this orange tarp in their pristine outfit sipping wine. Though Grace is the ostensible subject of the photo they are rather dwarfed by the landscape. Is this an outtake from a bizarre fashion or ad shoot? Despite the strangeness of the scene, what is disconcerting is our inability to classify the function of the photograph.
Or you could simply think of these disconnects as dryly humorous. There is the picture of detritus, wilted flower petals, a tennis ball and cigarette stub, which may for some recall Irving Penn’s still lives, and sure enough, from the brand emblazoned on the tennis ball, the title is, Penn and Wet Butt (2019). Or the one-liner of a photo of a half empty ketchup bottle, which at quick glance seems to have strands of French fries shooting in from the side, a view belied by the title, White Asparagus and Ketchup (2019).
There is almost always a telling detail, which serves to derail the meaning train of the photos. The almost six-foot-long Nathalie with Hot Dog and Flag, 2014, while straight out surreal (she is wearing a pea coat sitting on a pale, (Caucasian) flesh-colored personified hot dog squirting ketchup and mustard on its head in front of an American flag), really goes off the tracks when you notice the bruise on one of Nathalie’s alabaster naked legs. Chin resting on fist, wearing a crystal necklace, red hair flowing like the flag stripes, coat buttons echoing flag stars, Nathalie dangles her left hand strangely provocatively between her parted legs. The gallery informs us that, five years later, Nathalie is now Nathan, for whatever that tells us.
And when you see a photograph like Mehdi on a Motorcycle (2019), that is entirely shades of white, silver, and gray from the fresh-off-the-assembly-line motorcycle to the futuristic, blindingly white sneakers worn by the male model with long wavy hair, whose smooth brownish skin becomes the only thing of color in the photo, is there a racial subtext or is that just in my white head? Probably that deadpan ambiguity, like in most Ethridge photos, is exactly the idea.
What artworks have to say about the nature of artistic control and how that control can be used to affect a viewer’s perception, and how that relationship between control and perception creates the idea of representation seems to be Ethridge’s purpose. In art, representation becomes the way an artist can play with an unacknowledged series of viewer assumptions, and when viewers are forced to confront the unstable nature of their assumptions, as in Ethridge’s photographs, reality begins to come undone. Or just enough to get you to see with more sophisticated eyes.