Martin Klimas, New Flowers @Foley

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs, framed in white and umatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2010 and 2019. Physical sizes are either roughly 32×24 inches (in editions of 5) or 60×44 inches (in editions of 3); the prints also come in a larger size (which is not on view). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The conventional wisdom that permeates today’s art world tacitly tells artists that the way they should work is in discrete “projects” or bodies of work that are then brought to the “market” every 18 to 24 months. And while this calendared system may be effective and easy to manage for galleries, it’s an inherently crazy logic – the spinning hamster wheel of this cycle doesn’t really lend itself to long term artistic thinking or methodical evolution.

So the fact that Martin Klimas has continued to make his photographs of flowers for more than a decade, and is showing new examples from the ongoing series in this show, is something of an outlier. We saw some of the first images back in 2009 (reviewed here), and so are now able to track the subtle changes in the artist’s approach through to 2019. The project didn’t end, he didn’t move on (he instead ran a few other projects and experiments in parallel), and he’s still finding new avenues to explore inside his structured framework.

The basic recipe for his unorthodox floral still lifes has remained remarkably consistent. A clutch of specimen blossoms (always one type, never a mixed bouquet) are placed in a ceramic or glass vase (typically with some design style) and set against a colored backdrop. A projectile is then launched in from the side of the setup, and at the moment of impact, the shutter is clicked (triggered by the sound), capturing the exact moment when the vase explodes into smash of shards and water droplets. The result is an image that is essentially bisected, the top remaining entirely still while the bottom breaks into violent chaos.

Stylistically, Klimas’ flower images deliberately play on this dissonance. The exacting detail of a commercial shoot is blended with a stop-motion Harold Edgerton-style technical blast (with every tiny fragment caught in mid-air), and that tension gives the pictures their vitality. Without reading too much into their aesthetics, the creation/destruction duality is pretty obvious, as is a fragility theme. Mostly, the photographs are just wildly unexpected, the deliberate smashing of the vase a gesture that doesn’t typically occur in such elegant studies of natural beauty.

The main difference between the floral images Klimas made a decade ago and the ones he’s making now is the palette. Gone are the brightly colored backdrops, the red, oranges, yellows, and blues that made for matchy-matchy pairings with the vases/flowers and vibrant overall moods. The new pictures are darker, the colors muted and more shadowy, almost drained away. The backdrops are largely shades of grey (often subtly tinted) and the vases are often white or black. The sum of these nuances is an increase in tension and a slight decrease in perceived optimism – these pictures are being reduced to essentials, leaving behind a gloomier aftertaste. And as this series has matured, it is becoming more richly evocative, rather than simply eye-popping.

The durability to be found in Klimas’ flower pictures is their consistent upending of the traditions of the genre. The exploding vase trick may seem like a simple artistic conceit, but a decade’s worth of images proves that the brash contrast of grace and brutality that Klimas has tapped into continues to resonate with viewers. These new pictures have a more threatening edge than ever before, making their quiet savagery all the more apparent.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at either $3200 or $8200, based on size. Klimas’ work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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