Ethan Greenbaum, First Surface @Lyles & King

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 photographic works, alternately framed in painted color frames or unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and in the front entry area. 10 of the works are direct to substrate double sided prints and acrylic on vacuum formed PETG, made in 2018. Physical sizes of these works range from roughly 20×14 to 68×50 inches  The other 3 works are direct to substrate double sided prints and acrylic on carved acrylic, also made in 2018. Physical sizes of these works range from roughly 36×21 to 43×30 inches. All of the works in the show are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: When walking around a bustling urban metropolis like New York city, it’s comforting to think that the concrete sidewalks under our feet have the enduring solidity of ancient bedrock. But the reality is that sidewalks are usually just a thin layer of covering like skin, underneath which lies a dizzying array of critical infrastructure, from electrical and cable television wires and steam-based heat systems, to water and sewer piping and subway tunnels.

And in the normal course of life in the city, the sidewalks take a daily onslaught of abuse. Between the weather, the pedestrians themselves, and the seemingly constant need to get at what’s underneath, it’s no wonder that most sidewalks look like they’ve been through decades of constant battle. They’re pockmarked and dented, crumbling and scarred, and in many places, painted with incomprehensible markings and symbols by construction workers who need to know exactly where a live wire or a water main might be hiding.

For a trained painter like Ethan Greenbaum, the sidewalks of the city offer a never ending stream of found abstraction, and over the past decade, he has persistently experimented with how to translate those discoveries into artworks that capture some of the same richness of texture he has found beneath his feet. While downward-looking photographs have formed his primary trove of aesthetic inspiration, he has been a willing tinkerer with all sorts of unlikely materials and printing processes, systematically exploring how vacuum-formed plastic, plywood, and 3D powders (among others) can be used to replicate the sculptural qualities of surfaces he has found of interest.

When I first ran across Greenbaum’s work (in 2013, review here), the idea of merging digital photographs with intentionally bumpy vacuum-formed PETG was not only novel, but very much in the midst of the larger photographic trend (at that artistic moment) of printing photographic imagery on all kinds of heretofore unexplored substrates. Five years later, while the novelty of this unusual process has perhaps waned a bit, Greenbaum’s control of and confidence with the vacuum-forming approach seems to have increased immeasurably, allowing him to better leverage it toward his own aesthetic ends.

Greenbaum’s recent works once again begin with iPhone snapshots that capture fragments of the gnarled topography of the city. Many of these images contain splashes of spray paint or other colored symbols and interventions, and Greenbaum enhances these colors digitally, tuning them up to a feverish level of saturated intensity. From afar, the images largely dissolve into abstraction, with bold gestural marks fighting for visual dominance with more ordered backdrops brimming with tactile detail, and in some cases, breaking down into digital pixelization. The grid of the sidewalk is never seen straight on, its lines shooting off at angles or twisted on its axis, furthering our sense of disorientation.

These photographs are then printed and affixed to both sides of a thin plastic sheet, creating a double layer effect; the nuances of this are only really noticeable up close, where the two images diverge in ways that allow the space of the transparent plastic to separate the image just a bit. In each work, Greenbaum has matched the two image partners meticulously, creating areas where one image hands off to the other, or a matte surface interacts with glossiness. In one work, Windows and Doors, Greenbaum has erased one portion of the sidewalk completely, allowing the transparency of the clear plastic to show through. In others, he’s just using the fractional mismatch of space to create a thicker richness of seemingly shifting depth.

When these images are then vacuum-formed, they take on a three-dimensional physicality that enhances our experience of these textures. Some works make more literal use of this effect, making sure that cracks and divots appear in the right places, or mottled concrete takes on a bumpy surface. But in others, Greenbaum has added a degree of misalignment to the mix, placing visual cracks off-kilter with the physical ones, or letting bulges bubble out from areas that are seemingly flat. The result is that this skin of the city seems to take on a burbling life of its own, the colorful marks turned into decorative impulses and the unevenness of the surfaces allowed to feel deliberate and improvisational.

This intentional push and pull of the surface is more obvious in a small group of new works that use a thicker sheet of smooth acrylic as the substrate. In this case, the two partnered images are separated by a wider space, highlighting the visual combinations that occur when the two images work together or diverge. And instead of the works being vacuum-formed, Greenbaum has cut grooves and scooped slices out of the plastic with a router of some kind (sometimes in harmony with the image and sometimes skew to what exists in the front picture plane), and in a few cases, done the reverse, building up areas of additional acrylic like mounds or distended tunnels. In these works, the random scratches of the city have been energized, Greenbaum slashing the plastic with an echo of what exists in the photographs.

And while all of this photographic manipulation and sculptural hand crafting has been going on, what has emerged are some of Greenbaum’s most expressively painterly works yet. In Delivery, as an example, vibrant splatters of red paint seem to lift away from the crunchy pixelized sidewalk, becoming supremely glossy and shiny, to the point of feeling slippery. And within this matrix, the vacuum-forming inserts a swooping sense of all-over movement, as though the concrete itself was once soft and malleable. As one integrated composition, it takes the rigid representation of the photograph and then disassembles it into something much more deliberately fluid, and that transition is bolder and more confident than ever before.

Finding a way to effectively add sculptural physicality to photography is a complex and nuanced challenge, and it has taken Greenbaum several rounds of experimentation to begin to bring this unruly beast under some form of control. The best of the works in this show are evidence that he has gotten to the point that he can add more vivid and expansive artistic strokes to his visual vocabulary, and these extensions signal that he is reaching a point where the hard fought lessons of the past are coming together as a powerful (and unique) aesthetic platform.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $3000 to $16000, based on size. Greenbaum’s 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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