Anja Niemi: She Could Have Been A Cowboy @Steven Kasher

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 color photographic works, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made in 2016 or 2018. 14 of the works are single images. The prints range in size from roughly 4×3 to 44×59 inches (or reverse) and are variously available in editions of 7+2AP or 12+2AP. The other 2 works are sets of 36 prints framed together, each print sized 5×7 inches; these works are available in editions of 3+2AP. The show also includes a glass case displaying the artist’s costumes and props. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by Jane & Jeremy (no book link yet, booklist here).

Comments/Context: The Norwegian photographer Anja Niemi’s first solo show in New York situates her among a growing band of female photographers exploring the artistic possibilities to be found in staging and self-portraiture.

But stepping into this genre immediately raises the hovering spectre of Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s artistic wake spreads so far and wide in this area that nearly every woman (and man) who decides to try this approach has to deal with the choppy waves of her influence. Niemi’s efforts to find her own artistic voice amid this presence have centered on deploying a handful of aesthetic and compositional innovations to create some separation. She has left the confines of the studio, and encouraged her images to build up into larger and more complex narratives. She has hidden her face, changing the dynamics of the artist/viewer exchange and making her stories more open-ended and universal. And while her styling in her most recent project has echoes of Alex Prager and Julia Fullerton-Batten, she has used this heightened sense of retro-cool as a way to give her pictures a more obviously cinematic and dream-like flair.

Niemi’s recent series She Could Have Been A Cowboy is smartly built on two levels of playacting, with the artist playing one character who fantasizes about being someone else. “The Girl of Constant Sorrow” is a platinum blonde in a pink dress, who inhabits a lonely set of sparse rooms. She spends her days in an endless cycle of movement from the bedroom to the bath and out to the foyer, where a window to the outside world offers her only moment of release. Otherwise, it’s a Groundhog Day refrain of sleeping, dressing, bathing, and back again to bed (particularly as seen in a dense grid of bedroom images), the quiet loveliness of the floral wallpaper and the antique tub lost in a sense of stifling serenity and boredom.

What the girl really wants is to be a cowboy, and so the pink dress falls away, to be replaced by a fringed Western shirt, brown riding pants, and a white cowboy hat, and we watch as she sets off on a fictional road trip. Armed with an old style Samsonite suitcase filled with retro clothes (including maps and white gloves) and tagged with a Grand Canyon train stub, she heads out on an imaginary journey, with Canyonlands National Park in Utah as the eventual setting. We see the motel she never visited, watch as she puzzles over the landmarks on the map, and tag along as she reenacts gunfights and dusty horseback rides in the hot sun. We get the sense she is checking off boxes on her mythical tourist list – ride an Appaloosa where John Wayne once did, visit the graveyard of famous gunslingers, reenact a duel in rocks (with herself), and pretend to be shot, mimicking the thrown back pose of the falling soldier in Robert Capa’s Spanish Civil War photograph, each scene tinged with a bit of forlorn could-have-been elusiveness.

The most poignant images in the show capture the cowboy girl dancing, cutting loose with a sense of abandon and freedom that the sad girl can only dream of. Another grid collects dozens of these images, the shakes and shimmies full of life and energy. And it is here that the importance of the whole cowboy theme seems to fall away a bit and the pictures expand to fill a more general sense of “wanting to be another,” regardless of the specifics of what that aspiration might be. A double portrait of the sad girl and her cowboy alter ego (the two women Photoshopped into the same room) sets up this back and forth most clearly, the contrasts of body language (from shoulder slumped to air-guitaring) bringing home the distance between the two personas.

Niemi does an admirable job of never letting this fanciful narrative spin into the realm of overt camp. To be sure, many of the scenes feel stylized, but that tint of fantasy is all part of the layered perspective of the sad girl, her wishes and hopes cleaned up into singularly clear moments where reality doesn’t intrude too far. Her photographs are really about the power of imagination, and our ability to see ourselves outside the bounds of our normal lives. There is a universal magic to that become-someone-else transformation, and her ability to tap into this common urge is what gives Niemi’s images their surprising depth.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $2350 to $15000 (framed). Niemi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail like remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Anja Niemi, Steven Kasher Gallery, Jane & Jeremy

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