Monthly Archives: January 2006

Seydo Keita

It is difficult to pick one point to start with when considering the work of Seydo Keita. The article in the Times touches on many of the issues contributing to the rise in value of his photographs as an art commodity, but asks nothing about what drives the excitement for this work. Comparing Keita’s work to Rembrant has got to be one of the most ridiculous assertions that anyone could make. It is patently obvious that the task of painting even a poor imitation of Rembrant would be far more difficult to accomplish than it would be to make most photographs. Keitas work, naive and humble was made “….outside any aesthetic discourse” but it was made inside for a specific and utilitarian objective, to make photographic likenesses of his subjects. That was his job, and he did it in a workmanlike manner, nothing more. If one were to make comparisons to an artist of the european or western culture, why not choose the work of a photographer, instead of a painter? Look at the portraiture of Arnold Newman whose work unfortunately does not figure prominently in today’s hot art market. Long acknowledged as a master (Like a Rembrant) in the history of photography( a separate precinct from the history of art ), Newman also did photography for hire. Unlike Keita, his understanding of the medium was deep and intuitive. His sensibility was consistent but inventive; each subject would be photographed in a manner that both described the sitters’ appearance, an evocation of the sitters’ personality and the vision of Arnold Newman. Keita’s work has no subtlety or invention. He presents us with nothing more than the description of the sitters and the fabrics in which they are dressed or posed against. To our first world eyes, no doubt, we perceive a quaintness and exoticism, but I can’t see Keita showed any great awareness for doing anything more than making the photograph. There is hardly any variation in the expression of the sitters. All of the poses are similar, and only the distance to the sitter was altered. He used a variety of backgrounds, but beyond that there simply is little exemplary about his photographs. Viewers find a lot to be intrigued with, not the least being the ethnographic information. But this work is far short of Rembrant or Newman.

A more apt reference to compare Keitos work is to that of a small town photography studio in America. In fact a small town American photographer, Mike Disfarmer, was “discovered” and brought to prominence. The images of Disfarmer and Keita have much in common, and seem to appeal to viewers in the same way. There is, as most people realize, a quality of nostalgia encapsulated in photographs, and as photographs get older, they become more interesting. The nature of this interest does seem to be wired into the human psyche, and anything that is older than being simply out of date becomes more appealing, and later talismanic. The flea market would be the base camp of commodification of the old, and a museum such as the Metropolitan would be the summit of value. Since, in some ways the most banal old object is redolent of some essence from the time in which it was made, we find it intrinsically interesting and evocative. Consider a 1964 Ford Falcon, an automobile, undistinguished in any way at the time of its manufacture. It was plain and basic, but no doubt loved by those for whom this was the new car that they could afford. I doubt that there were many who did not trade it in as soon as possible for a newer and better car. That car, used, would serve another owner or subsequent owners until such time as it was sold or destroyed. Yet a few of these cars survived, and when we see one on the street, in new condition, we are likely to spend at least a few minutes contemplating it as an engaging artifact. Everything about this object would resonate in our minds- whether we saw this car new in 1964 or for the first time in 2006. Now consider the 1964 Ferrari 275 P, which would represent a high point in automotive design and engineering in 1964. To our eyes in 2006, both cars are artifacts that generate interest. Are they now of equal stature and significance simply because they evoke the sensibilities of another time? While the original owner of the Ferrari, may too, have replaced it in a year or two, an appreciation for this car probably accompanied its entire existence. I imagine that the excitement generated by this car in 1964 would be comparable to the excitement that it creates today. The same could not be said about the Ford.

If the Ford contains 1964, so too does a photograph made in 1964. It contains 1964 through the encapsulation of details and specificity to be found in that year, possibly that Ford or Ferrari, or fashion particular to that time. Were we to examine two photographs (made with materials unchanged over the years), of a subject that gave no visual cues as to time, I submit that a viewer could not establish the time when either image was made. It is that detail from the past which intrigues us. Keita’s and Disfarmer’s photographs bring us the past and the exotically unfamiliar. But this kind of work brings it to us with all of the evocation of a Ford. By considering the mind, eye and sensibility inherent in a created object we can consider if the work belongs in the Met or at a Flea market. By comparing two photographs of a a timeless subject, we could make a distinction between a compelling image and a merely descriptive photograph. With photography, we must make a distinction between what is being shown and how it is being shown..

Another issue worth examining is print size and quality. Keita’s work was originally contact printed from the camera negatives, meaning that the prints were small. When introduced to the art world the work was exhibited as Jumbo sized, rich high contrast black and white prints. Any photograph can be printed in any size; it’s only a matter of cost. That scale is important in art is obvious, but to take undistinguished works, blow them up to the size of paintings and to do so with masterful tonality and range is to transform the work of Keita to simply the product of a great photography laboratory. This was a totally market driven production, and has nothing whatever to do with the vision of an artist. Collectors upset about how many prints were made are concerned only for their investment. There was nothing authentic in the decision to make the prints large, and it matters not how many are in the edition.

Elisa Sighicelli and Jan Groover

I happened to see for the first time, the work of Elisa Sighicelli at Cohan and Leslie which concludes this Saturday.

Sighicelli’s photographs immediately perplex: the  large format multi paneled work  appears to be at once a reflective print and a light box installation. To my mind, most gallery light box installations appear to be troublingly similar to airport advertising displays, but Sighicelli  avoids that association, Her images are mostly lit from the gallery track lighting. By selectively opaqueing the back of her images, she allows only selected transmission of the light box’s illumination through the photographic print medium.  By doing this, she has altered the expressive range of the shadows and highlights in her work. The results are highlights that truly glow.

Technique aside, her studies of conference rooms and other banal interiors show a formal sensibility and a disorienting point of view. She appears to approach an interior subject as if it were a landscape. Where the foreground of a landscape would recede from the bottom of the picture frame, receding in perspective to form the horizon at some point upon the frame, Sighicelli regards a table top in the same way. She places her camera lens  upon the table surface which in effect makes the table top the “ground” and the back edge of the table becomes the horizon. As the table tops are shiny, the the image of objects in the background  merge with their reflections within the table. Sighicelli focuses her camera at the back of the photographic space, and this, too increasingly dematerializes the photographic illusion  by rendering her foregrounds out of focus.  This artist began with inert, unprepossessing subject matter, but with intelligence and invention, she has created engaging and transformative work. Ask to see the monograph(s) of her work at the gallery counter.

At the same show, Sighicelli exhibited work based on appropriated imagery. Selecting small portions of  XV & XVI century Sienese painting, she crops out the figures and main subjects of these paintings, presenting  the edited results as a light box. The idea that within a larger pictorial composition one can find and excerpt another composition has little conceptual payoff. Doubtless, that strategy could yet again be applied to her  work, and where would the process stop? Compared to  Sighicelli’s landscape and interior works, these do little more than revisit a tired post modern conceit.

Jan Groover at Janet Borden, 560 Broadway, 212 431 0166. January.

A selection of Groover’s late 1970’s Kitchen Sink Still Life images look great in the small catalog sent by the gallery. The Show opens next week. When seeing Groover’s work in the mid 70’s I was most excited the photographs that explored the spatial interrelationships between adjacent photographs. Seeing her triptychs of architecture brought to mind many considerations about space and illusion. By placing a spatial and planar illusion contained within one photograph adjacent to the that of another two frames, Groover was able to create a push pull of space across the span of three frames.

There had been artists constructing assemblages of multiple photographs before, on one front Ray Metzker, and on the other Jan Dibbetts. Groover’s work seemed to nestle between  these two practitioners. Surprisingly, Groover seemed to retreat into her home, and produced a series of still-life photographs of plant leaves and kitchen utensils.  At the time, the images appeared to be a throwback to some of the traditional still-life images of Strand or Weston, without the rigorous formalism.  More obviously they played with reflective surfaces of silverware and the colors that could be captured within the metallic surfaces. All of these objects are cluttering the same frame, and while we should expect to  see  how the elements sit in space relative to each other, Instead, what we see happening is a complex negation of representational space. Completely filling her picture frame with  plant leaves, butter knife blades and other kitchen hardware, the compositions become collage like. There is a transcendent moment when these images exceed simple compositional exercise. Objects in the foreground appear to drop behind objects that we know to be in the background. Surfaces become depths, and depth appears to be flat.