Arne Svenson, The Workers @Julie Saul

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are pigment prints, made in 2014. Each is oval sized (on rectangular paper, sized roughly 31×27), and available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lawsuits and frothing media hype notwithstanding, Arne Svenson’s now famous project of telephoto-lens apartment scenes (The Neighbors) was never really about gotcha voyeurism or invasive surveillance, and his most recent pictures documenting unsuspecting construction workers in the midst of their various tasks (The Workers) aren’t either. Both are actually rooted in the elemental found gesture (a time honored photographic approach) and the hidden grace that can be discovered in the mundane when it is deftly isolated and reframed by the eye of a photographer. Svenson’s newest images step back from the edge of social exploitation a step or two, and will likely pass without the outraged fervor that was applied to the previous work – we’re back to seeing them simply as photographs, rather than as controversial intrusions.

Svenson has introduced an oval format to these new images, embracing his chosen fragments with, depending on your perspective, the intimacy of a locket, the up closeness of a pair of binoculars, the cropped view of a porthole, or the elegance of an Old Master painting or a childhood silhouette. The tightness of the perspective turns anonymous arms, heads, and backs into sculptural forms, with a scrim of plastic sheeting, a paint splattered ladder, or a window frame providing a layer of compositional interruption.

Heads and faces are covered by baseball hats, bandannas, scarves, towels, and dust-prevention masks, turning recognizable people into something more universal, where the frozen movement of elbows and hands and the subtle turns of torsos provide all of the “action”. As a result, we step back and see these photographs for their classic formal qualities – the warmth of the light and color palette, the positive and negative space created by the bodies, and the simple grace of what just a few details can evoke, even in the roughest and most unlikely of circumstances.

In this way, the bustling chaos of construction becomes a kind of dance, where each isolated movement has an inherent beauty of its own. It’s surprisingly difficult to make pared down pictures that tell rich stories with a minimum of elements, but Svenson has largely been successful in his efforts to make due inside this purposefully constrained visual system. A white set of headphones can become an echo of Vermeer, and a pair of doubled elbows can turn into marching abstract chevrons. He’s offered us an obvious connection to an art historical past, but reimagined it with a light touch, finding simple faceless grace amid the dust.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5500 each (a smaller 14×11 size is also available, at $2500 each). Svenson’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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