JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 color photographs, framed in white/black/gold/silver and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made in 2017. Physical sizes range from 24×18 to 42×56 (or reverse), and all of the images are available in editions of 3+1AP. The show also includes 1 neon sculpture (made in 2017), hanging over the reception desk. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In trying to pin down an aesthetic definition of the photographic genre we call “commercial photography”, it might help to start with a few adjectives. Cleaned-up. Professional. Perfect. Slick. Styled. Staged. Controlled. Particularly in product shots made for advertising campaigns, commercial photographs can have a bright sleekness that highlights the best features of the given subject, and when we look closely at that manufactured sublimity, we often start to sense that what we’re being presented with borders on the unreal. We know we’re being sold something, but we as viewers play along, as we’ve become accustomed to being communicated with in these specific ways.
In the past decade or so, as commercial images of all kinds have become more ubiquitous (and malleable), many contemporary photographers have begun to unpack the aesthetics of commercial photography, effectively appropriating that style of image making and applying it to their own artistic projects. Roe Ethridge is perhaps the best example of a recent artist who has explored the subtleties of the commercial look-and-feel, but there are plenty of others, ranging back to the Pictures Generation and forward to Elad Lassry. The result is often an uneasy sense of confusion, where pictures that look like stock imagery behave in ways that quietly undermine that aesthetic.
Joseph Desler Costa’s new show embraces this sense of deliberate commercial uncertainty, mixing high and low in ways that create visual complexity. Starting with a silver Coors Light beer can, a golden football helmet, a dangling cigarette ready to drop its ash, and even a headless male body in crisp white briefs, he’s then employed multiple exposures, hazy lighting, and “luxury” metallic frames to give these everyday items a feeling of glamour. While the various objects are isolated against non-descript backgrounds like standard product shots, the repetitions create a ghosting effect, where the can spins forward, the helmet tumbles down, and the bodies seem to dissolve into layered echoes wandering in indistinct softness. A related effect is applied to more technical products – a pair of binoculars, a camera on a tripod, an industrial light fixture – adding wispy palm fronds to the pastel tinted surroundings, the lonely professional gear hovering in a soup of foggy tropical vagueness.
Even better are Costa’s sneaker works, where high end black Nikes hang (and disappear into) against an all-over backdrop of flowering oleanders. Hard and soft are well matched in these pictures, the machined exclusive luxury of the Air Jordans (one pair even has shiny gold detailing) retreating into the natural texture of the blossoms and leaves. In one work, the multiple exposure effect is smartly used to build up an interlocking tangle of black legs, the shoes weighing down each foot with visible heaviness.
The footwear theme is then expanded in the two strongest works in the show (Boot Figuration and Adilette Silhouette), where male and female forms, shoes, and graphical elements are swirled into stuttering layers of multiple exposure interruptions. Both bodies stand in one-elbow-up poses and disintegrate into versions of themselves, while the black heeled boot and Adidas plastic sandals linger in the background, and slashing white lines and shadows traverse each frame, almost like cancellations of some sort. The pictures have a sense of despairing sensual demand, of wanting but acknowledging (with the hidden face body language) the futility of that impulse.
These photographs succeed because they are consistently built on shimmery tension, and that stubborn resistance to easy resolution is what keeps the compositions fresh. Each picture threatens to separate, to evaporate, or simply to break up, forcing us to look again to see what happens next. Costa offers us the comfort of a typical commercial interaction, but then undercuts that consumable beauty with hints of opposition.
Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced between $2500 and $7200, based on size. Costa’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.