Dirk Braeckman, Luster./ @GRIMM

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale photographic works, framed in thin stainless steel frames and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space and the entry area. 9 of the works (including 8 single images and 1 set of five images) are ultrachrome inkjet prints mounted on aluminum, made between 2014 and 2021. Physical sizes of the panels range from roughly 35×24 to 71×47 inches (or the reverse) and the works are variously available in editions of 3+1AP and 5+1AP. The other 3 works are gelatin silver prints mounted on aluminum, made between 2013 and 2018. These prints are each sized roughly 71×47 inches and are either unique or available in an edition of 3+1AP. The show also includes 1 HD film (black-and-white), made in 2012. Its duration is 13 minutes 17 seconds, and the work is available in an edition of 3+2AP. (Installation shots and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: While photography is an artistic medium inherently defined by light, its ability to similarly probe the murky depths of darkness has provided more than a few master photographers their aesthetic entry point. Velvety rich blackness envelops some of the most durable works of Roy DeCarava and Ray Metzker, and countless others have embraced the open-ended mysteries of shadowy interiors, darkened rooms, and nocturnal life. It seems that for every photographer who has reveled in photographic brightness, sharpness, and clarity, there is likely another who has been seduced by the image-making complexities and uncertainties of darkness.

Without attributing any negative motives to his photographic practice, the Belgian photographer Dirk Braeckman has long been associated with the dark side. For several decades now, Braeckman has been making very dark images that simmer with glimpses of something recognizable, often incorporating hard-to-identify process experiments and image layering. The deliberate lack of definition in many of his pictures has consistently pushed them back toward atmospheric studies of mood, punctuated by the ephemeral temptations and apocalyptic flashes that fleetingly emerge from the surroundings. Seeing a Braeckman photograph is always like peering into a dark closet or out a dark window, where obscure secrets only partially come into view.

Over the years, Braeckman has had quite of bit of artistic success, particularly in Europe, with a string of museum exhibits and a 2017 show at the Venice Biennale on his resume. But in New York, he has been largely absent, aside from a few works popping up at art fairs and and a 2010 gallery show, paired with Bill Henson (reviewed here). So this show provides an opportunity to both re-acquaint ourselves with Braeckman’s aesthetics and catch up on what he’s been doing in recent years.

The largest work on view in this show consists of 5 panels hung together, essentially as one almost contiguous scene. In it, Braeckman offers us a swimmer’s eye view of dark water, with a few frothy waves and bubbles providing a hint of contour and depth; in the background, low hills seem to loom in the distance, with the separation between land, water, and sky becoming less distinct as our vantage point swivels. Atop these slices of waterscape, Braeckman has layered a range of misty process veils, where areas of light and dark confuse our sense of the actual topography. In a few cases, the jagged dark forms seem to invert the compositions, with mountainous lines in the watery zones, almost like reflections; in others, shifting areas of light and dark act like flares that amplify or underplay the original conditions. Further drops, spots, and chemical washes degrade the overall clarity, giving the set of pictures a deeper sense of ominous, almost drowning vagueness.

Braeckman’s recent interior images follow aesthetic threads he has explored before – female nudes, beds, and empty rooms, seen with ambiguous sensuality or edge-of-horror muted tension. His anonymous bodies seem to dissolve into indistinctness, the recognizable curves softened and erased to the point that they nearly merge with their surroundings, leaving us just a hint of flesh, at once unknowable and subtly tantalizing. The same might be said for sparkling flashes of dresses that emerge from darkened rooms, the light catching sequins that are then matched by surface distortions that hover like scratched and fogged windows or the marks on discarded snapshots. These effects and approximations strip away specificity, giving Braeckman’s compositions more drifting timelessness, like very faint love songs heard through walls.

In another group of works, Braeckman intentionally employs different flares of light to alter (or more forcefully disrupt) the tone of otherwise dark scenes. One bleakly mundane image of an empty living room is blasted with raking light that creates a swirling surface disturbance, making the texture of the print (which is being re-photographed) itself more visible – and giving the scene a feeling of an intimate memory that has been interrupted. In another work, the light of the sun streams in through a balcony doorway overlooking the sea, a curtain-like process division in the image echoing a camera obscura-like reversal. And in a third image, an apocalyptically dark aerial view of an endless nameless city is punctuated by what looks like light across plastic sheeting hovering in the sky, adding a layer of potential choking suffocation to the ordered grid of the streets.

A couple of other works then re-introduce a small amount of color to Braeckman’s otherwise monochrome palette, which he uses to intensify the moods he’s exploring. In one murky landscape, the color scheme leaks towards sickly yellow, like a silty underwater view or the thick smoke of a wildfire; a single emphatic scratch through the middle of the image (like one of Thomas Barrow’s cancellations) both accents the horizon line and amplifies the division. And in another picture whose unspecific process machinations have resulted in something that feels like a view of the cosmos, Braeckman has added some sparkly blue dust to the surface of the print, thickening the celestial floating aura.

Because Braeckman’s prints are so darkly indistinct, there is a natural tendency to find them underwhelming – they’re simply deliberately hard to see, and those without the requisite patience will give up on them. The larger question is that if we slow down and allow our eyes to adjust to Braeckman’s singularly murky vision, does what he’s showing us resonate in some meaningful way? As seen in this show, there are several visual moments that tunnel into nuanced emotional landscapes that are worth exploring – either as sites of unexplained (or perhaps distant) fantasy or memory, or as someplace even darker, where unspoken traumas might seem to linger.

These are the kinds of subjects that photography, as a mechanism of recording faithfully what is placed in front of the lens, typically handles poorly. Which is why Braeckman has introduced his own aesthetic modifications and process improvisations to carefully upend the medium’s fidelity, thereby opening up visual doors to wrestling with more open-ended subject matter. It is this intentional re-calibration of the medium that is what’s durably interesting in Braeckman’s work. He’s pressing ahead in to relatively uncharted territory and pushing the medium beyond its normal boundaries, in the hopes of finding ways to make images that capture uncertainty and ambiguity more powerfully. From afar, it feels like a daunting process of alchemy and experimentation, but when he gets the variables right, there is undeniable energy emanating from these elusively dark moments.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $8500 to $22500, based on size and the number of prints included. Surprisingly, given his relatively long career, Braeckman’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Skinnerboox in 2022 (here). Hardcover (17 x 21.5 cm), 134 pages, with 60 color and black and white photographs and illustrations. Includes texts by ... Read on.

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