JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room upstairs gallery space and the office area. All of the works are archival inkjet prints, made between 2016 and 2019. Physical sizes range from 15×10 to 51×34 inches and all of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. is building some promising momentum in his early career in photography. After graduating from NYU in 2017, he’s had his work included in group shows at the Leslie-Lohman Museum and at PPOW Gallery and had a solo show at Baxter Street at CCNY earlier this year (reviewed here). This show at Nicelle Beauchene represents the next incremental step in his artistic journey, another solo exhibit of new work, but now at a well-respected young gallery.
As we would expect at this early stage, Brown is iteratively refining his eye. He’s exploring the ambiguous space in portraiture, deliberately avoiding straightforward views and instead experimenting with more elusive approaches – visual interruptions, skewed angles, views from the back or of sitters turned away, and other alternatives and misdirections. These aesthetic choices are then made more emotionally resonant by layering in notions of family, community, and the history (and reclaimed future) of African-American photographic representation.
Many of Brown’s new works interrogate the dynamics of layered space, where multiple figures and bodies (none of which is the central subject exactly) intersect. Wilting turns three guys hanging out into a intricate mix of legs and feet. Keep that one metaphorical does something similar, looking at the negative space between a cluster of knees and hanging feet. Other pictures document interactions that don’t immediately make sense – comforting hands from two different neighbors on the back of a churchgoer or the upended, dance-like tumble of a boy on a couch. Brown’s images seem to search for that instant when the ordinary turns quietly puzzling, which he then crops into further spatial confusion.
Two pictures push further towards a portraiture of absence. In Inherent distance, a kitchen scene spreads the two people to the far edges of the frame, focusing our attention on the empty space in the middle of the room and the bolted door in the background. In another work (with a far longer title), an oily stain has been left behind on the paper sheet covering a doctor’s exam table, the head (and person) that made the mark no longer present. Both images force the viewer to look closely at the exclusion or omission, offering an open-ended space for narrative imagination.
Several of the photographs seem to work in pairs, even though they aren’t diptychs or even sequential or serial in some obvious way. Two images use the purple tint of black light to create atmosphere, another two capture a woman in a floral dress from inside and outside a steel security grill, and a third pair creates an echo of pose, with a reclining woman with her right arm folded up seen in different light conditions. The strongest of these twosomes uses a nude woman lying in a plastic backyard kiddie pool as the subject. A wide view sets the scene, capturing both the imbalance of the full sized person in the small pool and the uncertainties of the splashed water on the wooden fence behind and the two anonymous feet in the foreground. A closer-up composition tightens the view, showing us a disorienting combination of a fist, another hand, a dangling earring, a necklace, and some other unidentifiable body parts, as seen against the shallow water of the yellow pool. Hung next to each other, the two photographs create a satisfying crackle of intentional mystery.
While so many young photographers are drawn to documenting found oddities in the world around us, Brown has smartly avoided that well worn path and is, in some sense, searching for the opposite – the potential for a photograph to capture the in between, the missing, or the uncertain. His aesthetic road will end up being much more challenging, but to the extent he can both hone his skill at uncovering this ambiguity and apply it thoughtfully to the contemporary black experience around him, he’ll continue to durably separate himself from his cohort.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $2000 and $6500, based on size. Brown’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.