Andrea Grützner, Erbgericht/Guesthouse @Julie Saul

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted/matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are pigment prints, made in 2014. The prints are sized either roughly 25×16 or 59×40 and are all available in editions of 5. This is the artist’s first solo show in the US. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the 1910s and 1920s, when photography was making the stylistic transition from painterly Pictorialism to what would become the crispness of Modernism, the artistic response to the functionality of the camera was undergoing a transformation. If wispy blurred surfaces were your goal, a camera’s penchant for faithfully reproducing detail was a weakness to be overcome; but if the elemental truth of unadorned clarity was what you were after, suddenly a camera’s optical fidelity was a strength.

As more and more photographers embraced a “straight” approach to photography in those years, artists began to play with the flattening properties of lens-based vision, creating images that turned landscapes, industrial scenes, and even still lifes into symphonies of spatial ambiguity and geometric precision. Even something as mundane as a view down a back stairwell could become surprisingly intricate and elegant in the hands of the right artist, as Charles Sheeler and Tina Modotti both proved in those busy years. Soon afterward, as photographic Modernism gained momentum, even more disorienting and abstracted perspectives were explored (and exploited) by countless artists from all over the world.

This historical interlude is relevant because Andrea Grützner’s new works feel rooted in this very same intellectual terrain, even though they were made almost a century later. Taken in a modest village guesthouse in the eastern part of Germany, her images consciously turn its interior walls, corners, and staircases into studies in complex planar composition. And in this age of easy post-production manipulation, her process is decidedly throwback – all analog, single exposures, with no downstream alteration or compositing. However perplexing her pictures become (and many of them are downright puzzling), their essential reality makes the many twists and visual inversions all the more impressive.

The guesthouse itself is unassuming and non-descript, consisting of a handful of rooms, some dividing walls and sliding partitions, a few railings, a tile bathroom with a mirror, and some stairs and railings, spread across a couple of floors. So Grützner’s challenge was to make this familiar setting haltingly unfamiliar. She accomplished this via several interconnected strategies. She crops views down until they lose all sense of identifiable depth and scale. She uses colored gels to cast light cross various surfaces, creating additional layers of geometric shadows that confuse our perception. She turns and inverts pictures (or hangs them sideways and upside down), making floors into ceilings, and uses mirrors to flatly reflect what lies behind us, adding to the uncertainty. And once she sets on a composition, she iterates, trying it in different colors or sizes.

Walking through this show, I had the distinct feeling of being tested – could I figure out what was happening? And while many of the images resolved into interlocked planes of walls and ceiling, often the only way to find an answer was to look for recurring clues in adjacent compositions. A simple plumbing pipe runs vertically in a series of images, as it extends from a blocky corner; when we see it again going out the left hand side somewhere else, it takes a minute to grasp that we’ve been rotated, the edge of the nearby mirror now on the side rather than at the bottom. A straight up view confused me for a long time, until I saw that what I was looking at was actually a strip of fluorescent lights and a rod for a curtain, and that the vertical orientation of the picture made me assume it was something affixed to a wall. This show is filled with these kinds of head scratchers – railing shadows that don’t lead where they should, a patterned ceiling in the wrong place, or an image cut into perfect quadrants, with an upright piano and some flattened stairs fitting together in unlikely top and bottom alignment.

In the end, it’s hard not to come away convinced by Grützner’s visual intelligence. With a very limited set of choices and options, she has fashioned a selection of optical mind binders that push ordinary reality toward complete abstraction. There is old school photographic smartness and meticulous control on display here, and that deliberate precision is seductive.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 59×40 prints are $4800 each and the 25×16 prints are $2400 each. Grützner’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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