Juan Orrantia, Like Stains of Red Dirt

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Dalpine (here) and Fiebre Photobook (here). Softcover with red acetate jacket, 26.5×22 cm, 98 pages, with 47 color reproductions. Includes an array of red tinted monochrome thumbnails with titles/captions. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Jaime Narváez. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The maquette for Like Stains of Red Dirt was awarded the 2019 Fiebre Dummy Award.

Comments/Context: The red acetate cover of Juan Orrantia’s photobook Like Stains of Red Dirt is more than just a protective sheath for the photobook inside – its transparency tints the cover image of draped African fabric, offering a veiled introduction to the Colombian photographer’s layered compositional interest in color. Having spent the past decade living in South Africa, this body of work ostensibly centers on the photographer’s intimate observations of his life there, but this is no standard documentary project. Instead, it intermingles shadow studies, portraits, still life arrangements, plant and garden imagery, and the interior intrusions of more colored acetate, creating an atmospheric swirl of meditative impressions.

Orrantia sets the tone with the first image in the book, an upward view into the twisting branches of a jacaranda tree. Washed with surreal pink light at night, the curving limbs seem to grope into the leafy darkness, the small blossoms becoming light purple. Images of nature, both plants and gardens as well as dusty red dirt, reappear throughout the photobook, rooting us in the tactile experience of the land, but infusing it with a sense of tension and unease. Small birds perch in a fiery red nighttime tree, sinuous jungle leaves reach outward with pink stems, a dense nest of palm trunks and spiked succulent leaves is tinted cotton candy pink and purple, and yellow and orange birds of paradise bloom amid thickets of leaves, the nocturnal gardens taking on an edge of strange mystery. Many of these pictures recall the moody aesthetics of the Japanese photographer Lieko Shiga, where colored cast light across natural forms seems to awaken the spirits of the darkness.

Shadows take on similar uncertainty in Orrantia’s photographs. In some cases, the dark silhouettes and interruptions are transformed into unpredictable sculptural forms, doubled faces and hands (some further multiplied by color tints), dappled light patterns (on feet underneath a table), and encroaching tides that swallow up a nude body stained red and a pair of hovering feet; the final image in the photobook is another shadow study, perhaps a fleeting self-portrait as the artist escapes out of the frame. Flares of light unlock a related series of secrets, beginning with an Impressionistic rain-spotted window with a slash of bright lightning. Orrantia then follows graceful colored flares down hallways and into bedrooms, discovering yet more colored lights and even some magic golden rocks lurking in the darkness.

Some of Orrantia’s compositions are more deliberately artificial, bringing acetate sheets into the mix more overtly. Some are studies of the crinkled surfaces of red and yellow sheets, with highlights bouncing around the wrinkles and facets. Other images include the sheets as part of still lifes (blue and yellow squares mixed with red watermelon slices, a red sheet draped over a child’s wooden blocks), or as tinted color cast across arrangements of baobab fruits, hands and feet, and even a loose gathering of teeth. He balances these mannered visual confusions with more uncontrolled images of moths and birds in flight, adding ephemeral motion back into his aesthetic toolbox.

When Orrantia turns his camera to making portraits (we assume of family members), he often opts for skewed angles or twists of perspective and cropping that turn the mundane into something formally complex. Bent arms and elbows, folded legs, top down views of hands, and a face covered with a towel are all studies in space, with an echo of Viviane Sassen’s deliberate inversions and misdirections. Bodies lead back to folds of drapery, which link to the velvety textures of white roses, and then to the skittering of moths – connecting the seemingly disparate imagery into a continuous flow.

What sets this photobook apart is Orrantia’s willingness to take risks in mixing different kinds of imagery into one visual experience. Linked together by color and shadow, the photographs in Like Stains of Red Dirt build up a self contained world that is both familiar and perplexing, perhaps in the same way that life in South Africa has been for an outsider. The best of the images offer up subtle grace notes, that are then bookended by bold disruptions and bright experiments, resulting in a gentle back and forth between reassurance and discomfort. That uneasy oscillation never allows the viewer to settle, with surreal interludes in the rhythms of family living seemingly always right around the corner.

Collector’s POV: Juan Orrantia does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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