Christopher Rodriguez, Between Artifice and the Sublime @Sasha Wolf

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. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2007 and 2014. The prints are alternately sized 16×20 (in editions of 5), 30×40 (in editions of 3), and 50×60 (in editions of 2). A self-published monograph of this larger body of work, entitled Sublime Cultivation, can be found at the artist’s website (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As emerging photographers try to navigate the choppy waters of contemporary photography, one of the most seductively tempting siren songs is the now popular aesthetic of isolated found oddity. Go into any photobook store and the new releases table will have half a dozen titles filled end to end with this kind of work. Seen with either snapshot casualness or large format clarity, the pictures narrow in on small moments of landscape, still life, portraiture, and nude – a crumpled bag on the sidewalk, two traffic cones in the dust, a bent arm with a bleeding cut – employing a largely deadpan gaze to frame sometimes quirky formal relationships. The challenge is that the vast majority of these discoveries are entirely interchangeable, perhaps observantly clever in their own intimate way for a fleeting instant, but ultimately forgettable and lacking in a durably distinct artistic voice.

At first glance, Christopher Rodriguez’ work looks to have fallen into this now familiar trap of watered-down surreality, but the good news is that there are notes of an original voice consistently coming out in the seemingly random moments on view here. Two swimming pool/water images are evidence of something unexpected. Reflections, fragments of pool architecture, piles of chaises, artfully discarded towels on docks – these are the kinds of images we might expect from this genre. But in Clayton, NY, Rodriguez uses a severely unbalanced composition to create uncertainty, with a man floating near the very bottom of the frame underneath an expanse of blue – his arms drift near his head with liltingly soft grace, the weight of the water above reinforcing the feeling of gradual sinking. And in Larissa at the Pool, LA, a woman stands in a pool, wiping her eyes in the bright sun, her hair slicked back from recently rising from the water – this image has a tenderness that fights the banality of the gesture, the surrounding dappled blue like a blanket that cocoons her momentary vulnerability.

Rodriguez also repeatedly displays a nuanced eye for color. A forest fire landscape with a twisting river (the fire nowhere in sight) is warmly tinted with grandiose pink like a 19th century Romantic painting. The shadowed side of a hulking beachside rock formation wallows in a hint of blue, the sky blasted out to pure white. And pinpricks of light cluster and dance on a rich gradient of orange, swirling with vibrant energy. Even more straightforward architectural weirdness, like a cotton candy pink garage or an unfinished stair-stepped green paint job on the side of a warehouse, often turns on the smart exploration of unlikely color discoveries.

Another pair of images find Rodriguez extending beyond obvious compositional centrality. In Clayton Shooting, MA, we look over the shoulder of a photographer on the beach, his camera pointed at a gull arcing through the sky – what’s intriguing about this picture is the sense of depth down the beach we get from this vantage point, even though the horizon is ostensibly flat. And in Gust of Wind, AL, we stand underneath a gas station overhang as a loose tarp on the back of blue truck billows upward. There is a quiet balance to the lines of this composition, the edge of the roof and the graceful rise of the tarp settling into easy alignment, the muted shadow on the ground offsetting the strong blue form of the truckbed.

In many ways, this show takes an overused approach and extends it in deceptively novel ways. That’s much easier said than done, so we should take note that Rodriguez has done it with such flair. As the title of the exhibit indicates, he’s walking a knife edge between knowing artifice and the authentically sublime, and he’s accomplished that feat with enough intelligence to stand out from the exhausted crowd.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 16×20 prints are $2400 each, the 30×40 prints are $5000 each, and the 50×60 prints are $8000 each. Rodriguez’ 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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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by MACK Books (here). Spiral-bound hardcover, 18 x 22 cm, 80 pages, with 40 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by Neelika Jayawardane ... Read on.

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