Christoph Niemann: Photo Graphics @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 13 c-prints, 2020, 2022, 2024, sized roughly 12×16, 15×20, 16×12, 19×15, 20×19, 20×20, 22×17, 23×17, 36×23 inches, in editions of 60
  • 5 c-prints, 2024, sized 11×8, 16×11, 16×12, 28×21 inches, in editions of 10
  • 12 ink on c-print, 2022, 2023, 2024, sized roughly 7×10, 8×11, 10×7, 11×8, 12×8 inches
  • 1 video, 2019, in an edition of 10

Comments/Context: There is often some creative magic to be found in the artistic crossover between mediums. Across the history of photography, when painters, sculptors, and other artists have picked up a camera, they have often seen the world differently than the rest of the traditional photographic mainstream. Ticking off names like Brancusi, Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Twombly, and Richter (among many others) quickly offers a sense of fresh eyes being applied to lens-mediated vision, and of lessons learned in one aesthetic framework grafted onto photography in unexpected ways. Artists working in other mediums tend to intuitively re-imagine photography for their own purposes, as though playing with a newfound artistic tool or toy.

In the worlds of illustration and graphic design, Christoph Niemann likely needs no introduction. In the past two decades, he has distinguished himself by nearly any measure we might apply, from exhibitions and books published to covers for The New Yorker and a feature on the Netflix series Abstract. Part of Niemann’s durability as an artist comes via his commitment to economy and simplicity – his visual language is nearly always built from small observations of the world around him, which he then translates into drawings and designs that leverage his playfulness and visual wit. From afar, his process feels both open-ended and quietly methodical, with blank sheet artistic challenges faced again and again each and every day. Along the way, he’s explored a broad range of artistic processes and endpoints, from ink and silkscreen to linocut and letterpress, along with a few forays into video and augmented reality animation, each presenting a set of new challenges and opportunities for his searching mind.

In recent years, photography has seeped into Niemann’s work with more regularity. Many of his “Sunday Sketches” (from his 2016 book) involve an ordinary still life object which has been photographed (like a paintbrush, an ink bottle, or a pair of bananas), to which Niemann has added drawn accompaniments which transform the formal properties of the photographed object into something cleverly different (like a woman’s dress, a camera, or the back of a horse). In this way, each object becomes a “what can it be?” puzzle for Niemann to work his way through, a test to see how it can be re-imagined in some other elegantly unlikely form.

At this point in his artistic career, Niemann travels around the world with a decent amount of regularity (for clients, exhibitions, and other meetings), and like nearly any jet setting visitor, he takes snapshots of whatever catches his eye. Like the around the desk/house object photographs that provided the inspiration for his “Sunday Sketches”, these color images and scenes have become starting point raw material for yet another round of creative problem solving. In these works, Niemann has brought out a bottle of black ink and drawn right on the prints (creating both singular ink on c-print works and digitally edited prints in larger editions), his interventions transforming the photographs in various ways.

Several works cleverly add faces, profiles, and silhouetted stick figures to the scenes. He uses a doorway with yellowing leaves of ivy to create the appearance of a kiss, the leaves becoming a textural flop of hair. He repurposes the holes and arrows on a wall mounted fire alarm as the red lipsticked mouth of an improvised portrait of Marilyn Monroe. He turns an image of the Berlin TV tower into a dangling earring. He reimagines a watery scene in Mumbai as the setting for a paired dance of instability, as the elongated figures jump from boat to boat. And he notices a small gap in a white painted crosswalk in Tribeca, seeing it as the phone a woman holds in her hand while distractedly walking.

These anthropomorphisms then give way to other additive strategies, with Niemann adding a range of squiggling lines, cast shadows, hovering dots, and tumbling letterforms to his snaps. Two of the most endearing works incorporate bird forms, one seemingly pecking into an overturned sidewalk planter in Paris, the other standing above a tiny urban pigeon like a mother hen, with scaffolding poles turned into spindly legs and feet and an array of interlocked black lines. Another standout image rethinks the foamy white wake of a boat near the Brooklyn Bridge, seeing it instead as a progression of falling black dots sinking incrementally into the river.

Of course, with black ink as his medium of choice, Niemann can remove (or blacken out) parts of the pictures just as well as he can add to the scenes, and a handful of works explore this isolation approach further. Many of these works break the fabric of the city up into discrete blocks, with enveloping flat blackness separating the pieces. Niemann removes the streets of an overhead view of New York city, amplifying the pattern its gridded arrangement, and reimagines the interior view of a subway car as blocked elements of seats, floor, and destination signage. Two of the strongest works using this approach isolate a pile of boxes waiting for sidewalk delivery into a geometric array of textures and patterns and blacken out the top of a dense city view, turning the skyline into a jagged game of Tetris. This city as video game theme is then reworked in a video version of “Traffic Pong”, where an overhead view of cars moving back and forth in São Paulo influences the movement of the two paddles.

While overpainting photographs has been a well known technique since the 19th century, Niemann’s approach is quite a bit different than simple embellishment or surface colorization. Instead, his interventions are wholly interpretative and transformative, fundamentally altering the compositions. His inspired choices point to a sophisticated eye for graphic flexibility and fluidity, where the particular curve of a black swan can become the thumbs-up sign of an Internet like. In this way, his “photo graphics” are an artistic form of creative recycling, where each snapshot offers everyday forms that can be brashly and playfully reused. In this way, Niemann’s black ink is a version of personalized mark making, applied here with a level of intelligence and nuance that is consistently impressive.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced at $900, $1200, $1400, $2100, $2400, and $2600 each, while the video is priced at $4000. Niemann’s photography has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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