Katy Grannan, Hundreds of Sparrows @Salon 94 Bowery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white and color photographs and 3 videos, framed in cream colored frames and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space downstairs (with an architectural installation of walls designed by Douglas Burnham of Envelope A+D in the center) and the entry area upstairs. The 12 black and white works are archival pigment prints on cotton rag paper, made between 2011 and 2015; these prints are sized between roughly 5×4 and 46×61 and are available in editions of 3+1AP. The 14 color works are archival pigment prints on cotton rag paper mounted to Plexigas, made between 2012 and 2015; there are 5 large prints, sized 55×41 each and available in editions of 3+1AP, and 9 smaller film stills, sized roughly 11×6 and available in editions of 3+1AP. The 3 color videos are single channel looped videos, made between 2013 and 2015. A two-volume monograph of this work, entitled The Ninety-Nine and the Nine, was published by Fraenkel Gallery in 2014 (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Katy Grannan’s newest gallery show, Hundreds of Sparrows, and the books and upcoming film that are interlocked versions of the same project, are evidence of an artist in the midst of a massively ambitious increase in narrative complexity. While Grannan’s previous portraiture projects over roughly the past decade were largely single frame stories or emotional studies, this project investigates its place and subjects from four discrete angles, interweaving intimate portraits (in color), wider landscapes and outdoor scenes (in black and white), fragmented film stills (in color), and meditative videos (in color) into one multi-faceted whole. The result is something much less distant and mannered than her earlier work, still formal in its construction but more open to allowing the richness and nuance of the personalities and lives on view to come forth.

Grannan’s setting is the Central Valley of California, and in particular, the sprawling in-between cities of Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield that sit near the irrigated lushness of breadbasket farmlands that stretch from horizon to horizon. Under the unrelenting sun of a desert climate, these cities bake in the punishing heat (even worse in the drought conditions of the past few years), withering down to worn transactional margins populated by those who have recently arrived, those that refuse to leave, and those that have nowhere else to go. It is a harsh zone of both economic and emotional poverty, and Grannan has settled in to patiently observe the struggle more closely.

The formal portraits in this show leverage the structural backdrop of sunblasted whiteness Grannan employed in her previous series, Boulevard, and applies it to a cross section of the local population. The intensity of the midday light in these pictures is so strong that her subjects seem to fight against a kind of invisible pressure – some adopt a mood of weathered resistance, others blank out into a vacant reverie, and a few turn away ever so slightly, opening up fleeting windows of intimate vulnerability. The isolation is so severe that personal defenses and theatrical airs seem to be stripped away, seemingly exposing the choices and consequences of life in these towns.

Grannan’s black and white images step back from this up-close inspection, following various middle aged (or older) residents (Deb, Pam, Cheryl, Inessa) of Modesto’s South Ninth Street (“The Nine” in more casual parlance) as they walk the streets, feed the stray cats, have a smoke, and cool off in the Tuolumne River under the concrete highway overpass. There is a bleak desolation in these pictures what weighs heavily, from the scraggly weeds and roadside trash framing an expansively empty landscape to the shadows cast by Inessa as she waits for customers on a side street, her coat and bag draped over a pole. Razor wire and cinder blocks seem well matched to the inexhaustible frying sun, the dead lamb on the highway covered with flies sure to be desiccated in no time. But the open arms of Christ (in murals, pamphlets, and other symbolic accoutrements) don’t seem to be an option these folks are taking particularly seriously; the mocking horseplay in the river provides its own kind of respite and salvation (maybe even a cleansing benediction) from the daily drudgery of the grim surroundings. These are pictures full of quiet extremes, where tenderness peeks out from underneath unforgiving surfaces.

Grannan’s videos and the related film stills add a time component to her narrative. The stills bring us inside, to tiny gestures and fragments of bodies – a bent arm, some dripping red hair, a dog getting a bath, a wet shoulder, a pair of pink polka dot panties pulled down to thighs – so close we can almost feel them; they’re the opposite of the arm’s length, clinical distance found in the more formal portraits. The videos tell stories of filling dead time, of doing nothing – a creamsicle eaten while watching TV, a lazy afternoon lying on a log over the river, or a night of improvised dance moves in an empty playground. We watch as time slows way down, where the movement of an arm, the shared laughter of bored young women, or the growl of the passing traffic is all the action that takes place. They seem to be saying that the emptiness of the land is matched by the emptiness of the days for those that inhabit it.

It’s important to note that Grannan’s multi-faceted portrait of these people and these towns isn’t unrelentingly ugly or dreary. There is gentleness in many of these pictures, and even some muted joy and understated and unconventional beauty here and there. Mostly the images seem to be infused with an invisible layer of weariness, as if that beating sun had taken its toll over the passing years on everything that absorbed its continuous waves of heat and light. It’s a view of reality that is not without hope, but one where the good times ahead may only be mirages on the horizon.

Grannan has gone much further in this show than ever before in her attempt to tell a nuanced and layered visual story, and this risk-taking extension of her usual artistic sandbox bears significant fruit. Several great pictures are supported by many more that ably fill in the narrative and scene-setting gaps, creating a rich, personal, and deceptively compassionate portrait of life in this dusty nowhere. The storytelling sophistication on view in this interlocking set of images and videos is light years from the relative simplicity of her early staged nudes in the forest grass. There is serious artistic momentum being built here, and it won’t surprise me if we look back on this project a few years hence and retroactively designate it as the transition point in Grannan’s career when things really started to boil.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $1600 and $18000 based on size. Grannan’s work is only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between $3000 and $23000. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Katy Grannan, Salon 94, Fraenkel Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    I’m relieved to see Grannan get at least two big fat collectordaily stars and an expansive, thoughtful review. She’s top five in the world, I’d say. ‘Boulevard’ stole the Saatchi Gallery’s photography extensive contemporary photography round up a few years ago.

    Having said that I think she’s exploitative in a similar way to Arbus; prepared to discard the humanist photographer ethics of social photography, which is not a red line to be feared as far as I’m concerned, if it’s done right. The image comes first and cruelty is present, as it is in life. Her theme of life after the (American?) dream reminds me of Carson McCullers.

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