John Edmonds, Between Pathos & Seduction @Company

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 photographs and 1 video, variously framed and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. 5 of the works are archival pigment prints, another 5 are digital gelatin silver prints, and 2 are solarized gelatin silver prints, made in 2018 or 2019. Physical sizes range from 11×11 to 40×50 inches (or reverse), and edition sizes are either 3 or unique. The show also includes 1 two-channel full HD video, made in 2019. Its runtime is 8 minutes 39 seconds. (Installation and video still shots below.)

Comments/Context: John Edmonds seems to be doing all the right things to lay a strong foundation for a durable career in photography. He earned his MFA in Photography from Yale, and made a series of solid early photographic projects that were summarized in his excellent first photobook Higher (published in 2018 and reviewed here). His recent work (an evolutionary step beyond the last project in the book) has been included in the Whitney Biennial (reviewed here), and goes another iteration further here in this solo gallery show. He’s methodically building on his successes, and clearly starting to gather some artistic momentum.

His newest pictures continue his visual exploration of the resonances of Central and West African sculpture, a project that has kept him busy in various forms for the past year or two. The most straightforward of the recent works (Mother & Child Carving (from the Baoulé)) replaces the formal blank isolation of Walker Evans’ still life images of African sculpture with shimmering golden surroundings, reverently enshrining the object and reasserting its importance. Another image (Whose hands?) finds a spectrum of hands in various skin tones (both white and black) all grasping the same carved wooden idol, the urgent claims of ownership and connection pulling in opposing directions.

When Edmonds brings full male bodies into the interaction with the wooden totems and masks, both the energy level and the nuance in the photographs increases. In Anatolli & Collection, a bare-chested man looks carefully at a selection of wooden sculptures, his gaze and body language offering connection, identification, consideration, respect, curiosity, and even trepidation – the relationship between the two is layered and sophisticated, a deep exchange of human learning and history, rather than an oversimplified matchy pairing. Two Spirits makes the identity exercise more explicit, having the sitter actually wear a long-beaked wooden mask; using a multiple exposure, Edmonds creates the illusion of a duality housed within one body. Lyle Ashton Harris’ most recent show (reviewed here) took a similar mask-wearing technique even further toward active spiritual reclamation.

African carpets and textiles provide Edmonds a different range of interactive possibilities simply due to their size and shape, and his photographic results are even more powerful. In both still photographs and a two-channel video work, bare-torsoed men stand looking away from the camera, their arms outstretched holding the textiles up against the wall. In the photographs (Enduring and Collapse), the muscled arms strain under the weight – the limbs are held up almost like a crucifixion pose, and the weight of African history threatens to push them back down. In the video, this straining is more obvious, with patient, almost bored holding of the carpet quickly turning into arms that need a rest from the exertion; in one panel, fog-machine smoke billows into the scene from time to time, giving the endurance process a more meditative and mystical feel. In another photograph (Tygapaw covered with a Kuba cloth), Edmonds drapes the textile over the head of his sitter, creating a tent-like covering with penetrating eyes peering out from underneath; here history covers and envelops the subject, the identity obscured (and protected) by its presence.

Two other portraits use bright light to memorable effect. In T. (Back), dappled shadows are cast across the sitter’s back, likely from nearby greenery, but the patterning recalls the rough scarring of slave mistreatment, giving the image a dark undertone within its sinuous beauty. And in a reclining female nude, the squint-inducing light stand is deliberately left in the frame, effectively bringing the viewer into the room with the photographer and model. The result is a nude that feels boldly alive and engaged, rather than stilted and aloof.

While Edmonds’ intimately dark solarizations didn’t hold my attention, the rest of this show is remarkably and impressively consistent. In his new works, the interplay between artifact and sitter has become much more absorbing and thought-provoking – not only is there quiet introspective contemplation, there is also physical struggle and labor, and this range of human engagement offers Edmonds more avenues for smartly interrogating the place of history and geography in the lives of African-Americans. The deeper he goes into this project, the richer and more synthesized his insights are getting – the lazy lull of the hot summer hasn’t dampened the photographic intensity to be found here one bit.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $3000 and $18000 each, based on physical size and edition size. Edmonds’ work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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