Fred Cray, Dissolve @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival ink prints, made in 2017. The show includes 14 single image works and 1 grid of 36 prints. The single images are sized either 14×9 or 28×18 inches (or reverse), and all of the prints are unique (a few have additions of small swatches of fabric). The prints in the grid are each sized 7×5 inches and are also unique. A limited edition self-published artist book is available from the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Few artists have rejected the inherent reproducibility of photography more consistently than Fred Cray. Throughout his career, he has restlessly experimented with approaches designed to deliberately break down the medium’s mechanistic nature, from darkroom manipulations and multiple exposures to punching holes in his prints and adding collage elements. His various (and often mysterious) forays into process have inevitably led to unique pictures, where the native precision of photography wrestles with the hand of the artist.

Cray continues this innovative exploration of the edges of the medium in his newest works. Starting with a range of fairly standard photographic imagery (sunsets, landscapes, portraits, nudes etc.), he has printed the images on paper that repels the ink. So instead of resolving into pictures with crisp edges and sharp details, the ink piles up into wet pools that blossom into abstraction. The aesthetic is something akin to watercolor paint with just a bit too much water, where droplets alternately expand and dissolve into fluid and uncontrolled washes of color. Coming from a starting point of photography, the images seem to be breaking down, their rigidity collapsing into ephemeral essences.

The best of the works in this show embrace the uncertainty created by the unconventional process, allowing the chance dispersion of the ink to bring something unexpected to the underlying subject. A black and white image of the Empire State Building melts away, as if the famous spire was engulfed in swirling black smoke. A night scene in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood takes on an anxious film noir mood as the dark sky wanders across the rooflines. And a melancholy female nude becomes a gestural color study, where the details are softened into fleeting impressions.

When Cray lets the process run a bit wilder, the results fully decompose. A Brooklyn sunset disappears into intermingled layers of pink, green, and orange. An airplane in the sky becomes a tiny smear against a tactile wash of creamy white. And what looks to be a beach scene with palm trees completely falls apart, becoming splotches of bright color and gentle watery conflict. The German photographer Joachim Schulz has used a similar process to turn images of Dutch floral still lifes into explosions of expressive color, the pools bleeding together into swirls of intense energy.

In the end, Cray’s core impulse seems far removed from some sort of neo-Pictorialism – he’s not trying to fawningly emulate the look of painting, but instead trying to forcefully deconstruct photography. Such a process doesn’t always yield compelling results, given its reliance of uncontrolled chance, but when the inks move beyond blur into slippery distortion, the images often find an element of magic. Held right at the tipping point of representation and abstraction, Cray’s dissolved photographs allude to more amorphous and nuanced realities, revealing that there can be much more to a photograph than its obvious clarity.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 14×9 prints are $3200 each, the 28×18 prints are $7000 each, and the grid is $6500. Cray’s work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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