JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. 8 of the works are archival pigment prints (the other is a digital silver gelatin print), and all of the images were made between 2015 and 2018. Each of the prints is sized roughly 44×31 inches, and is available in an edition of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Authentic tension is a shockingly rare commodity in contemporary photography. For many young photographers, the opposing poles of deadpan conceptual aloofness and stylized emotional staging offer seductive draws, encouraging artists to push to extremes of reduction or exaggeration in the hopes of generating aesthetic vitality. For others, the effort to stay in the relative center and find genuine tension is frustratingly elusive, their images settling into an inert mannered emptiness, where objects and portrait sitters are painstakingly selected and framed, but still fail to elicit any meaningful reaction.
At first glance, Elle Pérez’ images look like plenty of pictures we have seen before – unsmiling/earnest portraits of young people, starkly seen found details in apartments or in nature, even the bloody remnants of bodies and sexuality – where the photographer has turned his or her lens toward the nuances of life nearby. But a longer engagement with Perez’ work reveals that each and every photograph in this very tightly edited show is infused with real tension. These are not pictures that your eye swims by without even registering, the pattern already matched dozens of times over; they consistently twist and struggle, resisting overly easy consideration and demanding closer attention.
Pérez’ images of bodies are among her strongest. “Water body” captures a pair of blue-shorted legs standing in a quiet stream or pond, with tiny water droplets gracefully falling from the hem. Confusion enters the visual dialogue when we try to decipher the other hand and thigh that jut in from the bottom of the frame. Is the other person sitting and reaching up? And what might that say about the interaction or relationship between these two, given the intimacy of the touch? “Dick” turns an anonymous body into intersections and angles, the legs and arms nested together with formal clarity. But then Pérez anchors the composition with a bloody hand gently hung between the legs, leaving the situation (and relationship) surrounding that blood stain mysteriously undefined. And “Wyley” uses motion to generate visual uncertainty, the sinuous snap of a crimson red bandanna interrupting our view of the subject’s face.
When Pérez introduces faces, and therefore specific people, into her photographs, the dynamic changes, becoming more collaborative and quietly intense. In “Nicole”, the sitter lies on a pink couch, her right arm draped backward as she looks into the camera. Her reclining horizontal form is sandwiched between the glossy blackness of the nearby coffee table and the encroaching jaggedness of a shadow, the dose of menace balanced by the knowing confidence of her stare. And in “Ian”, she catches a long haired man fresh from the shower, his sink area bathed in the seething red glow coming from the overhead light; his towel-wrapped body is dappled by a thin blue line, the cast light coming from a crack in the door. While this set-up is intriguing in and of itself, it is the eye-to-eye interaction between Ian and the photographer (who is foggily reflected in the bathroom mirror) that feels charged with something unspoken.
Even Pérez’ still life discoveries are more than just found objects. A black and white image of an eroded rock face falling down to the water’s edge smartly plays with the steepness of the view, pulling the striations on the rock down to the cleft at the bottom and softening the hard texture into something gentle and seemingly malleable. And “Binder” turns humble laundry hung on a hanger in the bathroom into an emphatic statement, the garment a poignant symbol of personal identity, not unlike a sweaty suit of chain mail armor.
Consistently making resonant photographs like these isn’t an accident, nor is it typically the confluence of lucky shots made here and there. There is significant formal discipline and attention to craft on view here. Pérez has reduced each image to only what it needs to be and nothing more, peeling away distractions and superfluous visual information. Her pictures feel tightly wound and minutely calibrated, and her compositional control is what bottles the available tension so effectively. The result is a set of pictures that vibrate and sting, even when they are understated and tender.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5000 each. Pérez’ work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remain the best option for those collectors interested in following up.