JTF (just the facts): A total of 78 black and white and color photographs, framed in black/white and matted, and hung against white/blue walls in a series of three connected gallery spaces. 59 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1982 and 2003 (some printed in 2015). 18 of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 1984 and 1989 (some printed in 2014). There is also 1 cibachrome print on view, made in 1986/2014. The show also includes two vitrines, each with two books (Zoe Leonard, Analogue, 2007 and Facundo de Zuviría, Estampas Porteñas, 1996 in the first, Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1991, and Facundo de Zuviría, Siesta Argentina, 2003 in the second). The exhibit was curated by Gabriela Rangel and Alexis Fabry. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: One of the critical consequences of an increasingly globalized world of photography is the way that it shows us the broad commonality of our experiences. When we encounter pictures from a far off continent, we inevitably pattern match what we’re seeing against the fabric of our own lives, tallying up both the unique differences and unexpected similarities that we find. Even when time and space are significantly out of synch, we once in a while discover a kind of serendipitous connection that seems to echo across our these usually stubborn boundaries, forcing us to ponder the trajectories of invisible influence or the wonders of independent parallel discovery.
Like countless photographers who have packed up their cameras and walked their streets of their home cities, the Argentinian photographer Facundo de Zuviría has marked his days as a persistent urban wanderer. And while others have memorably shown us the overlooked details and surfaces of New York, or Paris, or Rome, or even Tokyo, de Zuviría has spent his life in Buenos Aires, restlessly pacing up and down its blocks as governments have come and gone and economic vibrancy has ebbed and flowed. And like all great cites, Buenos Aires has its own rhythms, and de Zuviría has spent his photographic career patiently waiting for her to offer them up.
The centerpiece of this show is a set of 36 black and white photographs made in 2001. For those less familiar with Argentinian economic history, it was in this year that facing the pressures of increasing capital flight from the country (created by worries about economic stagnation/recession), the government froze bank accounts in a measure later nicknamed the corralito, thereby preventing citizens from converting their pesos to dollars or withdrawing large amounts in any currency. Not surprisingly, this sudden lack of liquidity (i.e. cash) created a protracted crisis situation, ultimately leading to the devaluation of the peso.
Economic machinations like these are hard to visualize, but as de Zuviría made his rounds though his various local neighborhoods, he started to see a pattern – more and more shuttered storefronts and family businesses, their steel security grates pulled down not just for lunch or at night, but seemingly permanently. It was if the city was pulling back, the closed doorways a potent metaphor for the slow suffocation of these communities. So de Zuviría started to document these storefronts, framing each door and its flanking windows with a rigid formality that would have made Lewis Baltz proud.
By cropping out much of the surrounding context of the street, de Zuviría reduced each picture to a flat plane, the vertical rectangle of the door providing a bisecting function between the two squares on the sides. Each image is elementally crisp, the metal grills creating all kinds of repeating striations and patterns. Seen together, there is seemingly infinite variation even in this limited set of visual variables, with graffiti and wheatpaste posters interrupting the clarity of certain forms or architectural details adding visual interest to the strict minimalism of the compositions. The series succeeds on two levels – it gives us a documentary picture of a particular moment in history and it turns that reality into an artistic expression steeped in elemental rigor and formal structure.
The curators rightly point out that de Zuviría is not the first or only photographer to notice the symptoms of a vanishing city, providing apt connection points to Martha Rosler’s mid-1970s images of the Bowery in New York and Zoe Leonard’s more recent pictures from the Lower East Side (shown at MoMA in 2015 and reviewed here). This photographic instinct to preserve goes back through Eugène Atget in Paris and all the way back to the 19th century, but de Zuviría makes it his own, paring away the unnecessary and synthesizing his message down to just a few repetitive and resonant geometries.
This controlled vision loosens up quite a bit in de Zuviría’s earlier work from the 1980s, in both black and white and color. His subject matter is largely the same – storefronts and the eccentricities of window displays – but his approach is more intimate, zooming in on flourishes of lettering or unlikely juxtapositions. In the unique commercial and cultural melting pot of Buenos Aires, he observes both a beatific Jesus and Indian headdresses, a Japanese dry cleaner and Evita, Arabic movie posters and a chaotic torrent of floating eyeglasses, the look of each hat, or coffee cup, or hair salon, or corner bar telling us something about the city’s inhabitants. Stylistically, this consistent interest in vernacular culture pulls him back toward the work of Walker Evans and Luigi Ghirri, where the isolation of signage and other cultural signifiers draws these icons out of the bustle of the streets and focuses our attention on their singular wonder.
Perhaps there is some deep rooted connection between language, communication, and design that ties de Zuviría into this network of other photographers from across the globe, even though he was thousands of miles away or decades apart. Or maybe it is simply the common optimism of thinking one’s own local culture is intriguing, unusual, and important, and therefore worthy of careful attention, that drove many of these artists to walk their own streets in search of the overloo0ked. Either way, there is something that clicks about this exhibit of de Zuviría’s well made photographs – it snaps right into a familiar framework of ordered photographic thinking, even though it shows us the surfaces and details from a continent away.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Facundo de Zuviría is represented by Rolf Art in Buenos Aires (here). De Zuviría’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.