Inventing Objects: Jay DeFeo’s Photographic Work @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 75 photographic and other works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. (Installation shots below.)

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 51 gelatin silver prints, 1971, 1972, 1973, c1973, 1974, 1976, sized roughly 4×2, 3×4 (or the reverse), 3×5 (or the reverse), 5×4, 4×6 (or the reverse), 4×7, 5×5, 6×6, 6×7, 7×5, 7×7, 8×5, 8×10, 9×6 (or the reverse), 9×7, 9×8 inches
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1973, each sized roughly 5×4 inches
  • 10 photocopies, c1976, 1979, 1989, sized roughly 11×9 (or the reverse), 14×9 inches
  • 2 photocollages, 1972, 1973-1974, sized roughly 4×6, 8×4 inches
  • 1 photocollage on paper, 1973, sized roughly 8×7 inches
  • 1 photocollage with acrylic and glue on paper, 1974, sized roughly 15×19 inches
  • 1 photocollage with tape, 1973, sized roughly 10×8 inches
  • 1 photocollage on matboard, 1973, sized roughly 8×7 inches
  • 4 gelatin silver print chemigrams, 1973, sized roughly 10×8  (or the reverse) inches
  • 1 graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on rag board, 1974, sized roughly 8×7 inches
  • 1 acrylic on paper, 1979, sized roughly 14×9 inches
  • 1 charcoal and oil pastel on paper, 1979, sized roughly 14×10 inches
  • (vitrine): 8 presentation prints, 1960-61, 1972, 1973, 1974, sized 8×10 (or the reverse) inches

A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by DelMonico Books (here). Hardcover, 9.75 x 12 inches, 256 pages, with 166 black-and-white and 29 color illustrations. With essays by Hilton Als, Judith Delfiner, Corey Keller, Justine Kurland, Dana Miller and Catherine Wagner. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: If we play an artist recognition game and start with the name of the painter Jay DeFeo, the response we might elicit will most likely be some reference to her thickly monumental work The Rose from 1966. And while some might be able to place DeFeo in the San Francisco Bay Area or to connect her with her friend Bruce Conner, further details about her artistic journey seem to disappear relatively quickly. In the past decade, as a few of her photographs, photocollages, and photocopied works have appeared here and there, we’ve had a tantalizing taste of what she was artistically doing in the 1970s, but little in the way of real context. Happily, this show (and the accompanying catalog) fills in many of the blanks, providing the first in-depth examination of DeFeo’s experimental photographic output.

As with many artists who pick up a camera with seriousness long after their own unique artistic voice has been formed, DeFeo seems to have gone through an initial period of learning and adapting in the early 1970s, in a sense teaching her painterly brain to see photographically. She explores the isolation of forms and textures, as seen in leaves, thickets of growth, and other natural patterns; in water, waves, and flooding; and in the layered reflections of storefront windows and the geometries of buildings. None of these visual exercises is particularly memorable, but they are well crafted and we can follow along as DeFeo slowly gains a measure of photographic confidence.

DeFeo starts to find her own expressiveness in various images of isolated objects and unexpected finds. Whether we deem them surreal, poetic, or just slightly eerie or strange hardly matters; what’s important is the tension and friction that she starts to find, and later to more overtly construct. She shows us the twisted hulk of a smashed car near a phonebooth; a teapot left in the sink; a gloomily glowing chandelier; a head of cauliflower presented on a silver tray (almost like a brain); a dark mannequin torso on a post; and an old style telephone with a light bulb hung in the cradle. With increasing consistency, her images start to settle into a mood of uneasiness, where the everyday becomes infused with mystery.

DeFeo went on to amplify these moods with collage and cutout techniques, sharpening the isolation and recontextualization possibilities. The strongest work in the show uses images of dental bridges and teeth as the raw material for a tumbling pile of rounded forms, the contrasts of light and dark giving the pile the appearance of a mountain range or a dense crowd of people. Other collages (and rephotographed arrangements) play with floral blossoms, silhouetted body forms, and a ram’s head with curved horns, which she multiplies out and arranges atop tabletop mirror bases like a personal menagerie.

There is a searching restlessness in DeFeo’s experiments, with plenty of additional detours taken. She tries out complete abstraction, in the form of improvisational chemical washes and drips made in the darkroom. She plays with multiple exposures, with particular success using a contrasty image of a shoe, which she repeats and reorients into a stepping dance. She adds elements of drawing to certain images, and translates some compositions from photography back into hand-crafted approximations. And she makes images using a photocopier, isolating a lone coffee mug against the darkness from various rotational vantage points and encouraging a setup of drawing tools and paper scraps to degrade into tactile grain and shadow.

Perhaps it is the nature of a sampler-style show, but what comes across most forcefully in this presentation of DeFeo’s photography is that she was actively wrestling with the medium, but that she didn’t follow any one path far enough to reach beyond initial insights. There are many flashes of brilliance and hints of ideas worth following in this show, but only a very few get refined enough to feel like discrete artistic steps forward. Particularly in the subgenres of photocollage and photocopy, I came away wishing that DeFeo had spent another decade or two digging deeper and pushing herself to transform her ideas more radically. In using a camera and darkroom as tools to reimagine her artistic thinking, she clearly began to see the potential to surprise herself, but doesn’t seem to have invested enough to the medium to turn those positive results into a richer and more sophisticated body of work. What she leaves us is a range of promising photographic experiments, but not the intentional integration of those insights into a durably robust point of view.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The gelatin silver prints range from $15000 to $30000. The photocollages are priced at $70000, $75000, $80000, and $650000; the photocopies are either $26000 or $30000 each. The chemigrams are either $75000 or $100000, and the graphite and charcoal drawings are either $55000 or $65000. DeFeo’s photographic work has little consistent secondary market history in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Jay DeFeo, Paula Cooper Gallery, DelMonico Books

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