Matthew Pillsbury: Then and Now @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 photographs, in white mattes and frames, exhibited on gray walls in two rooms, with one photograph in the foyer. The prints (9 color, 5 black-and-white) are archival pigment and dated between 2008 and 2019. Sizes vary from 16×20 to 57×72 inches, with the majority being 39×31 inches. Eight are in an edition of 10, three in editions of 6, one in an edition of 5, with one available only in an artist’s proof. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: The photographs that Matthew Pillsbury exhibited in his New York debut at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in 2004 had the confident air of someone who believed in serendipity. As an MFA student at SVA a couple of years before, he had experimented with long exposures and produced black-and-white prints with sharp contrasts between light and dark, and between the gloomy solidity of stationary objects and the more fleeting presence of human beings. Some of the settings in these early pictures were done in the apartments and homes of friends and relatives in New York or Los Angeles, where the light source was a laptop or desktop computer or a flat-screen television or the inside of a refrigerator. Although these scenarios were semi-staged, he couldn’t predict the outcome, and this planned indeterminacy seemed to be the motive driving him to continue his investigations.

The hypnotic grip exerted by these devices on Pillsbury’s ghostly viewers was more than a little disturbing. The screens pulsed with more life than anything else Pillsbury discovered. The glowing rectangles were like entrances to another dimension, with the viewers who stared into them on the verge of being swallowed up by a white maw, a blinding blankness. The images had a cinematic dreaminess, too. They were sometimes titled by the name of the TV show or movie being devoutly watching by the featureless faces and figures.

I don’t know of another photographer who so presciently recorded how our lives were—and are—being transformed by a slavish attachment to these electronic feeding tubes, now found in every country on earth. (Full disclosure: I bought a few of his small early prints for the series later known as Screen Lives.)

Later in the decade, as he expanded his scope into public spaces, photographing museums, railroad stations, restaurants, and piazzas for the series City Stages and Time Frame, the light formerly supplied by small domestic appliances was replaced by the megawatt resources of entire buildings, urban grids or the daytime sky. He was no longer focused on individuals he knew, but on crowds of various sizes. The scale of the prints expanded, too. For his Tokyo series (2014-15), he introduced color. Hanami scenes were rendered in branching swirls of green, lavender, and pink while he saved the hard gray of black-and-white for the steel and glass malls and the Americanized fantasy of Tokyo DisneySea. Politics seeped into his work for the first time in Sanctuary, his 2017 show at Benrubi. The stunned reaction to Trump’s victory and the lingering melancholy felt by many was dramatized by Pillsbury in pictures of mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and New York, and also in scenes of people looking at a Vermeer painting and relaxing at beaches and pools in New York and Cleveland. The reassuring message from the artist seemed to be: “Don’t despair, and if you do, these places and activities have offered me a measure of therapeutic relief and perhaps will help you, too.”

For his debut at Houk, Pillsbury has selected work from the last 11 years. One third of the geographic emphasizes the old tourist economy of Paris (color photographs of crowds milling in front of Notre Dame de Paris and across the reflective floors of the Grand Palais des Glaces.) Art in the Louvre is also well represented by a few curious souls around the sculpture L’Esclave Rebelle, a larger group around Winged Victory, and by a sparse assembly in front of the Mona Lisa—all of these scenes done in black-and-white.

The largest—and strongest—portion of the show examines the 21st century tourist economy of Asia. For several years, Pillsbury has been gingerly poaching on territory staked out by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, presenting the sleek architecture of our hyperconnected world and the plugged-in lifestyles of the elite for whom it was constructed. Two examples here are outstanding contributions to this sociological genre. One is from 2016: a nighttime view of Hong Kong from The Peak. Pillsbury’s camera is positioned to note sardonically that the small contingent of sightseers gathered to experience the mountainous sublime are absorbed by the tiny screens in their hands rather than by the broader spectacle of skyscrapers and sea that impresses him. A similar caustic irony operates in his nighttime view from 2019 of the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel in Singapore. Its infinity pool, the largest of its kind in the world, is situated 57 stories above the ground. Pillsbury photographs the water’s inhabitants as they stand bunched against the edge, their backs to the city, staring down at their phones. Less barbed are his 2019 pictures from Singapore’s Changi Airport; he treats the mirror maze and the rain vortex much as the airport planners intended: as attractions for tourists in transit and welcome diversions for weary parents and their children.

The blurriness of the figures in all of Pillsbury’s photographs connects them and him to 19th century practice, when long exposures because of slow shutters and insensitive film were a necessity, not an option. The choice has been crucial to his success; it’s an element that allows his work to look at once antiquated and futuristic. Despite their globalized perspectives and digital manufacture, his images have an aesthetic provenance that goes back to Marville’s ghostly crowds who gathered to watch Paris being demolished and rebuilt in the 1870s or even to Daguerre’s shoe shiner on the Boulevard du Temple in 1839.

My chief worry is that Pillsbury runs the risk of being trapped into making work for and about the one-percent. From the looks of things, he has the means to travel the world, stay in expensive hotels, and photograph sites that his fellow globetrotters will recognize and want to buy pictures of. In 2016, when he photographed a corner apartment at One57, the 75-story tower on Central Park West known as the “billionaire building,” his attitude seemed comfortably celebratory, as if he were trying out the fantasy of residing high in the sky above the crowds. The ghosts in his long exposures take on another meaning in such places, where the owners are wealthy  ghosts who don’t buy them as homes but purely as investments. His photographs are starting to look like Singapore, spotless, with no dirt or graffiti or anguish, and that’s no way for an American artist to want to live.

Collector’s POV:  The works in this show range in price from $7500 for the smallest print on view (Mirror Maze, Jewel Changi Airport, 2019) to $35000 for the largest (Infinity Pool, Marina Bay Sands, 2019), with most in the $18000-$24000 range. Pillsbury’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Softcover in a slipcase (21×29 cm), 132 pages, with 125 color and black and white photographs. Includes writings by the artist. In ... Read on.

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