JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographic works (18 single images and 1 set of 5 images), generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2015 and 2018. Physical dimensions range from roughly 17×21 to 47×36 inches (or reverse) and all of the prints are available in editions of 6+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The largest work in Annette Kelm’s new gallery show is a five panel study of a colorful two-sided scale, set against a sleek blue to white gradient. In the group of pictures, the scale tips back and forth rhythmically like a children’s teeter-totter, alternately with one side up and the other side down. There isn’t much to this minimal step-wise motion, especially given the sleek production values of the sparse still life arrangement. And yet, the singular object offers a direct manifestation of one of themes that has become increasingly central to Kelm’s work – the notion of balance, and how the artist continually works to intentionally disrupt our sense of synthesis and comfort.
Many of the photographs in this show follow a common recipe of sorts, with one part nature combined with one part technology, the resulting pair or juxtaposition set against a deliberate choice of background. While not every still life on view here uses this same three-piece framework, the formula is repeated enough (along with improvisations along related lines) to be worth considering as a foundation. What’s of consistent interest is that when Kelm goes to arrange these three objects or aesthetic features, her goal always seems to be to find the place where our expectations are subtly wrong-footed, or balance is made uneasy.
Lilly #1 and Lilly #2 make the pattern clear. In each image, three pink and white blossoms stand attached to a small bamboo scaffold for support. And while this might initially look like a standard floral still life, the showy blossoms are on cut stems, so they are not in any way attached to a plant that is giving them life. Instead, the scaffolding seems to emerge from a metal 3-hole puncher, its machined surfaces and lever arm seemingly threatening to devour the dangling flowers like a shredder. This hybrid natural/technological pair is then set against a perfect green to white gradient, evoking the usual stylistic tropes of commercial product photography. So the two images have all the predictable surfaces of something we expect, and yet they don’t really ever converge into something we can entirely understand.
The same can be said of Big Sur and Still Life with Spring, two works that match metal springs of various sizes with elements of natural life. In the first work, one spring acts like a faulty vase, holding sprigs of cut evergreens (but no water), with a handful of other twisted metals arranged nearby like the bottles or jugs that usually inhabit such arrangements. In the other, a small spring sits atop another unplaceable metal form with long rods, its verticality matched by a bouquet of pink blossoms in a handmade vase. The backdrops for the two images are opposites – one an expressively painted piece of draping cloth, the other a pair of hard edged blue squares on white. But in both cases, the still life refuses to resolve, at least in ways we normally predict.
A stroll around the show hits this same theme of dissonance-by-design over and over again. In Proposal for Knots, a joyful amaryllis with several bright red flowers is set against a backdrop decorated with knot tying diagrams. In Pepper/Pac-Man, the tiny pink balls of a pepper plant tussle with a sleek painter’s palette, the form not unlike a Pac-Man ready to eat those dots. In Gems, the transparent disc leaves of an honesty plant are strewn over a tightly dotted backdrop and arranged with a miniature book on gemstones. And in Mini Easel Relief, this playing with scale continues, a blue painted sprig of textural greenery carefully arranged to make room for a bite-sized canvas on an easel. In each case, the “rules” for commercial still lifes (from which these images draw their aesthetics) are mystifyingly broken, leaving us to wonder what exactly we are being shown or why these objects belong together.
Two other works make this upending of norms even more explicit. In any typical still life setup for a product shot or an advertising commission, the artist would take meticulous care to remove any wrinkles, folds, or other distractions from the backdrop, as the object in the middle should be our focus, not the decorative wrapper. But in Red Stripes 1 and Red Stripes 2 (not a diptych), Kelm has failed to give us any central subject, and has left the imperfections in the backdrop (and the usually cropped out edge of the table) as they lay. She has made a still life of the absence of a still life, encouraging us to see the folds and wrinkles in the red and white cloth as the actual subject.
Kelm’s images clearly have a brainy conceptual bent that will appeal to some and feel obtusely odd to others. Her set-ups use our hard earned image processing heuristics against us, taking our tacit assumptions about how photographs like these are supposed to function and rudely but precisely undermining them. Their cool reserve masks a daring willingness to buck the ground rules, introducing an element of risk into a genre that has long been stuck in its own self-imposed ruts.
Collector’s POV: The single image prints in this show are priced between €6200 and €15000, based on size, with the set of 5 prints priced at €70000. Kelm’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.