Christopher Bucklow, Guests and Tetrarchs: A Retrospective @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against beige walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room.

The following works are included in the show:

Tetrarch series

  • 8 cibachrome prints, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, n.d., roughly 38×29, 40×56, 40×57 (or the reverse), 40×58, 60×40, 37×96 inches, unique

Guest series

  • 3 cibachrome prints, 1997, 2005, 2008, roughly 38×28, 38×29 inches, unique

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been roughly a decade since Christopher Bucklow had his last solo gallery show in New York (in 2013 to be exact, reviewed here), so we’re overdue for an update on what the British photographer has been doing of late. When this Bucklow show appeared on the calendar, there was hope that we might get a glimpse of a new project or perhaps a handful of new works to think about. But sadly, this effort rehashes Bucklow’s best known work, and while each of his images from these older series are unique and therefore it would be fair to say that we might not have seen these particular examples before, this show largely traverses ground we have been over already.

This isn’t to conclude that Bucklow’s signature silhouettes of light are somehow less engaging than they once were – on the contrary, they have aged well, and the strongest of the works from the Guest and Tetrarch series (separated by the differing sizes of the two pinhole cameras Bucklow used to make the images) continue to upend our traditional conception of the nude figure with their hovering auras and otherworldly glows.

As a refresher, Bucklow developed a unique process for making these works, inspired by the pinhole cameras of the 19th century. Each image begins with Bucklow tracing the shadow of his subject on a large sheet of aluminum foil, which he then proceeds to puncture with hundreds of tiny holes. The camera setup then places a large sheet of photographic paper at one end and the punctured aluminum sheet at the other – when placed facing the sun, the small holes act like individual apertures, casting hundreds of pinprick images of the sun and sky on the light-sensitive paper. As the years passed, Bucklow refined the process by clustering the holes in ever tighter bunches, lengthening the exposures, and using colored gels to tint the light, leading to a surprisingly diverse set of posed figures, pulsating hues, and implied moods.

Bucklow has variously characterized his sitters for the two projects as his friends and fellow artists, as images from dreams, and as self-portraits, or at least potential versions of a self unconstrained by the reality of a single body. As seen here, there appear to be men, women, and more androgynous subjects (as well as one pairing of two sitters), each a ghostly form seemingly overflowing with porous interior light. In terms of mood and atmosphere, Bucklow has found a way to evoke a surprising range of possibilities – most of the figures feel quietly introspective, with heads tilted downward and bodies standing with gentle poise; a few stride or stand with more overt confidence; still others seem in the midst of moments of anguish or tension; and a relatively standard pose or two is given a sense of seduction with the turn of a hip or shoulder. This show also features one upside down figure, who seems to hang, or fall through the air, with loose abandon, and a couple of unbalanced compositions, where the figure is pushed to one side or the other, creating a wider sense of space and emptiness.

When these works made their entrance into the art market, Bucklow was quickly categorized as part of a larger movement of British contemporary artists experimenting with negative-less photographs and photograms, including Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller, and others, even though Bucklow had wider interests in painting and other mediums. This is of course the curse of making work that people like and can quickly identify – particular works or a certain aesthetic comes to define a career, whether or not they are representative of the artist’s actual point of view.

So while there are surely collectors (and even institutions) who will just now be introduced to Bucklow and his ethereal bodies made of constellations of stars, for the rest of us who have already been following along, this show feels altogether too safe. As with aging rock stars, reprising the greatest hits can only go on for so long before admiration turns into nostalgia.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $18000 and $32000, based on size. Bucklow’s prints are intermittently available in the secondary markets, with prices generally ranging between $5000 and $14000.

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