Michael Wolf, Hong Kong Trilogy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Peperoni Books (here). Hardcover, 152 pages, with 104 color photographs. Aside from a short introductory prologue by the artist, there are no essays or texts included. The book is the first in a series of nine volumes of Hong Kong vernacular details. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past decade, Michael Wolf has proven himself to be unendingly fascinated by cities. In project after project, he has examined life in densely populated urban areas, applying fresh perspectives to the subject matter with each successive artistic effort. From the geometric abstractions of Hong Kong apartment buildings and the crushed riders of Tokyo subways to the nighttime activities found in Chicago skyscrapers and the random sampling of city life inadvertently captured by the Google Street View cameras, he has built up a diverse body of work that consistently draws nuanced visual ideas out of the chaos of urban life.

This small book (and the set of similar volumes that are promised to follow) brings Wolf back down to sidewalk level in Hong Kong, and finds him capturing unassuming details discovered in the back alleys and overlooked corners of the city. Stylistically, he’s taken on a hybrid form, merging the opportunistic chance of the street photographer with the strict rigor of the meticulous typologist. The result is a parade of seemingly simple found objects, their formal quirkiness connected by Wolf’s observant eye and some tight framing.

In a certain way, it’s hard to imagine that series of images of wet string mops could provide much interest, but Wolf’s photographs turn long wooden handles and limp strings into a surprising collection of gestures and geometries. The straight vertical view quickly morphs into pairs and triplets, followed by angles and criss cross arrangements, with sets of drying mops becoming intricate patterns and repetitions. When seen in situ against the exposed pipework and concrete of cluttered alleys, the mops add a layer of formal decoration that plays off the horizontals and verticals of window frames and plumbing. There is unexpected grace here, where we would normally see ugliness or nothing at all.

Wolf then applies this same careful attention to carts covered in webs of tied strings, rubber/white cotton work gloves left to dry, lost laundry blown over an exhaustive array of dangling wires, air conditioners, and balconies, and finally a selection of makeshift chairs tied together with scavenged materials. Each one is made sculptural by Wolf’s presence, the most elaborate and unlikely seeming like something left on the sidewalk by Fischli and Weiss, or perhaps the conscious creation of some Dada inspired workmen.

This satisfying little book is a reminder that the mundane can be quietly magical when seen with such clever photographic clarity. Its pictures might not change the face of contemporary photography, but they will certainly make you see your trash cans, cleaning supplies, and discarded junk with a renewed sense of pleasing wonder.

Collector’s POV: Michael Wolf is represented in New York by Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here) and in San Francisco by Robert Koch Gallery (here), where a show of Wolf’s recent Paris images is on view through August 30 (here). A few of Wolf’s large prints have recently entered the secondary markets, with prices ranging between roughly $18000 and $30000.

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