JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the six rooms of the gallery. All of the works are digital pigment prints, made in 2013-2014. Each print is sized 45×58 inches (framed) and is available in an edition of 3. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Aperture (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Gregory Crewdson’s 2011 exhibition at Gagosian held out the promise that he had realized that his staged scenarios were no longer paying out and had decided to gamble on the unpredictability of the found world for his material. After the stilted theatricality of his Twilight and Beneath the Roses series, he seemed to be refreshing his psychic stores with a return to black-and-white documentary. His unhurried explorations around the sets and soundstages at Cinecittà in Rome provided the same implied narratives and spooky overtones as before but without his having to be so painfully literal or controlling. He could imagine an invisible cast of hundreds—hasn’t it always been his not-so-secret wish to direct a big-budget film?—and didn’t have to hire actors to hold contemplative poses for multiple takes or spend wads of cash on cranes and props—those fake road accidents and truckloads of flowers and vats of lukewarm water.
Alas, in his latest show, titled Cathedral of the Pines, he has reverted to curdled forms of melodrama. Within an East Coast landscape of dense forest, rocky streams, cut-stone bridges, and granite cliffs—the name of the series refers to an area near his former home in Western Massachusetts where everything here was photographed—Crewdson has again planted actors and directed them to embody in their blank stares and stiff postures the all-too familiar tropes of alienation and despair found in his earlier series.
The series has a dual personality. The backgrounds are lush and uplifting, looking back at the 19th century tradition of American and European Nature painting (Asher Durand and Thomas Cole; Courbet and Manet.) The dress, gestures, actions, and storylines of the characters, though, are contemporary, tricked out with absurdist or ominous details. Bodies are often inexplicably nude; only when out into the snow are they dressed. They are posed with a lot of mirrors and grimy sofas in dilapidated interiors. Light spills from open doors, especially automotive. The Second Coming may be at hand, or perhaps just an ordinary Rapture.
The titles are baldly descriptive. The Telephone Booth has a naked woman standing in profile before an incongruous red phone booth above a brook, her clothes stretched on a rock and tree trunk nearby. The Mattress depicts two police cars parked in a distant smoke-filled clearing. Closer to us a man stands next to a sodden, leaf-covered mattress, the mood suggesting the tragic aftermath of a sex crime investigation. (A better title for the series might have been Hudson River’s Edge.)
The downcast mood of the work is at odds with its purported role in rejuvenating Crewdson’s spirits. He has let it be known in interviews that his divorce had been a crushing blow and that Cathedral of the Pines represents in his mind a rebirth. As he is quoted in the press release: It was deep in the forests of Becket, Massachusetts that I finally felt darkness lift, experienced a reconnection with my artistic process, and moved into a period of renewal and intense creative productivity.
Without meaning to diminish the paralyzing effects of an emotional crisis on someone, isn’t this TMI disclosure a bit unfair to his audience and an underhanded form of blackmail? To state one’s disappointment—the pre-Raphaelite lighting and inert expressive range in the latest work seems to me even more monotonous than what he was doing before his divorce—is to risk putting him back into a funk, or worse.
Not that he is any danger of being under-appreciated. Opening night at Gagosian for the general public overflowed with young admirers and ex-students. Crewdson is among the most visible and influential artist/teachers of our time. For more than a decade, magazines and TV arts programs have done feature stories about him because his creative process, unlike that of most photographers, seems explicable to the public. He has not been shy about letting people see how hard he works. The 2012 documentary film, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, directed by Ben Shapiro, reveals that an artist driven to be a perfectionist on the set can also be charming and gregarious. (Just because his mise-en-scène imitates the punctiliousness of Douglas Sirk doesn’t mean that Crewdson has to behave like a German autocrat.)
Despite its Wordsworth-ian backgrounds, Cathedral of the Pines, proves that Crewdson has not yet let go of Edward Hopper’s and film noir’s urban ennui as the chief sources for his narratives of people under psychological stress. Nor has he learned to supress his fan boy worship of David Lynch, so pronounced in his marvelously icky and obsessive still-lifes of bugs and grasses and dirt mounds from the early to mid 1990s. Cathedral of the Pines was story-boarded and required a small crew to realize. These are photographs that can’t be mistaken for snapshots. So they must be art. Or location shots from an Audi commercial.
Crewdson is a superb printer and these examples of his work do nothing to diminish his reputation. All of his leafy outdoor scenes have a gray-greenish cast that is luminous as well as suffocating, a style fitting for the mysterious light that holds these characters in its clammy grip.
Crewdsen’s sense of humor, if he could find a way to oil the rust, might lead him out of the forest in which he finds himself. The eponymous photograph in the Cathedral of the Pines series portrays a skier stopped on a snowy trail as he looks into an outhouse with a peaked roof. The interior of this crude, hand-hewn chapel is warmly lighted. A roll of white toilet paper is fixed to the wall above a tan brassiere hanging from a nail.
Sophomoric touches such as this make for artistic discordancy when faced with the many zombie-like men and women in the pictures, whose aphasic mental states and stage-managed economic woes Crewdson apparently wants us to take very seriously.
While it’s good to hear that making these photographs in the woods helped to lift his depression, he isn’t taking us along an uncharted trail. Alexander Nemerov has written an essay for a companion book from Aperture that no doubt explains many of the art historical references. I have not read it. Allegorical meanings may enrich the interpretive experience. I’m skeptical, however, that any amount of eloquent cultural drapery will do much to cover the threadbare outlines of Crewdson’s vision.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $60000 each. Crewdson’s works are regularly available in the secondary markets (both in the photography and contemporary art auctions), with recent prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $120000.