Mark Ruwedel, Palms Capri

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Nazraeli Press (here). Slipcased set of two hardcover books, each sized 11×14 inches. Each volume has 44 pages and includes 20 duotone plates (the images were made between 2011 and 2018). There are no texts or essays in either volume. In an edition of 150 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A deluxe edition, featuring two gelatin silver prints and a custom clamshell box, is also available (here). In an edition of 25 copies.

Comments/Context: As countless new arrival artists and photographers have experienced when moving to America’s biggest cities, it’s hard to get your head around the immense diversity of lives that are led within one densely populated place like New York or Los Angeles. While famous landmarks and locations can provide a kind of geographic and cultural framework for organizing an artistic survey of a big city, the challenge is of course that these icons have been seen so many times by others that they have often lost their ability to surprise us with new insights. And so the desire to make a sweeping definitive statement often gets toned down by sheer practicality, perhaps to something more manageable, like a closer study of a neighborhood, or a subculture, or a distinct community within the larger context of the metropolitan sprawl.

Mark Ruwedel moved to Los Angeles several years ago, and as a transplant, has been trying to find his artistic footing. Ruwedel is likely best known for his photographs of wider open spaces and bigger skies, like his Western landscapes tracking the 19th century survey photographers, or his isolated houses, abandoned structures, and paired buildings found on flat expanses of rocky desert terrain. Often shown as grids or typologies, his images are routinely squared off and rigorous in their execution, and his prints are meticulous in their attention to subtleties of black and white tonality.

But the specific topography of LA doesn’t really lend itself to that same kind of broad photographic vision; the freedoms of the sunbaked Western frontier have been reorganized and transformed into a thick carpet of human settlement, and so a somewhat different style of picture making is required. Perhaps taking a cue from Ed Ruscha’s grouped photographs of Los Angeles in the 1960s (gasoline stations, palm trees, swimming pools, real estate opportunities, and most particularly apartments), Ruwedel has spent much of the past decade driving down the streets in and around LA in search of apartment buildings named Palms and Capri. His results have been gathered into the lavishly produced Palms Capri boxed set, with each resonant word getting its own slim volume.

This isn’t the first time Ruwedel has used word play as an organizing principle for a photographic project; his 2017 gallery show in New York (reviewed here) was built around categories of images depicting Hell and Home. Here he opts for two repeated Southern California clichés – the palm trees (whether or not any palm trees seem to planted nearby) and the faded 1950s glamour of the Italian isle of Capri. Dozens of humble, low-rise apartment blocks across the city have adopted Palms and Capri as part of their fancy-sounding names, and Ruwedel has made a sampler set of images of each type, creating an informal typology of modestly aspirational LA living.

In general, Ruwedel has set himself up across the street outside these apartment buildings. And while in prior projects, he has chosen extremely rigid frontal framing, in these images, his approach is a bit looser. For the most part, he takes a structured view, with an expanse of pavement in the foreground, and the building itself (with its name prominently featured) in the center. But other views catch the buildings from down the street a bit or from across wider thoroughfares, so the pictures don’t all line up as strictly repeating compositions when seen as a sequence of page turns. Judy Fiskin’s photographs of flat roofed SoCal stucco architecture from the 1970s (which contain some similarities of subject matter) took a crisp template approach; Ruwedel’s images aren’t as pared down – instead he allows a bit more context into these frames, particularly parked cars, sidewalks, garages, landscaping, and surrounding buildings.

Ruwedel’s eye tends to push us towards the groovy Rat Pack typography that spells out the names of these buildings; angled cursive script is the most popular style, but there are plenty of quirky (and dated) font choices that provide some unexpected personality to an otherwise nondescript white building. Seen as a series, we see patterns in the words, with Palms often paired with ocean imagery (Sea, Pearl, Coral, Golden), female names (Lauren, Linda), and the neatly doubled Twin Palms, and Capri often given a touristy feel (Venice, Keystone, Normandie, Hollywood) or a Spanish vibe (El Capri, El Centro, Los Altos). Ruwedel has also uncovered two particular wordy gems – the elusive unicorn of both words on a single building (at the Palm Capri) and the chuckle-inducing Crapi Apartments, which is either a typographical mistake or an unfortunate reflection on the quality of the housing.

While the building itself is always the primary subject, Ruwedel attentively finds other details that give the pictures an added dose of visual interest. A satellite dish, the march of a fence or a stone wall, a pair of American flags, a decorative starburst, a bus bench, a duo of vertical palm trunks, a Move-In Special!, or a sweet van parked in front is all he needs to make us look again. These small observations and discoveries are evidence he has been looking at Los Angeles closely, trying to understand its hidden rhythms.

As is the case with many of the photobooks published by Nazraeli Press, Palms Capri is extravagantly well made. The two volumes (in navy and red) are housed in a sturdy slipcase that isn’t going to buckle under hard use. The books are generously sized, with stained Los Angeles map endpapers and elegant reproductions surrounded by plenty of white space. In a sense, books like these are simple and refined, but also deceptively lavish, with every detail executed to an impressive level of perfection.

Palms Capri isn’t Ruwedel’s strongest or tightest body of work, but it signals that he’s found some new Los Angeles-centric artistic directions to follow. Finding a unique photographic voice in a city where so many have already made their mark isn’t easy. Ruwedel is taking a measured, deliberate approach to seeing LA, acknowledging his predecessors, adapting the successes of his earlier work to his new environment, and experimenting on a controlled scale. Los Angeles has much more to give, and we can expect Ruwedel will keep looking.

Collector’s POV: Mark Ruwedel is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York (here) and Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here). Ruwedel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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