Michele Abeles, October @47 Canal

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color photographs, framed in black/white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller front gallery, and the reception area. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made in 2020. Physical sizes range from roughly 31×22 to 77×58 inches, and all of the works are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: With very real horrors swirling around us all in different forms these days, the pretend spookiness of Halloween decor provides an unexpectedly satisfying momentary escape to the deliberately unreal. Most of the photographs in Michele Abeles’s new show were made last autumn, before our world was upended, so she couldn’t have known that her images of campy skeletons, bloody ghouls, and tombstones would have such a strange resonance with our contemporary moment. Our annual make-believe dance with death has a more sober undertone now, further skewing the mood of these pictures of paper and plastic fun.

In many ways, these recent photographs feel like a departure for Abeles, or perhaps a return to simpler and tighter aesthetics. In previous gallery shows (in 2016, reviewed here, and in 2013, reviewed here), Abeles spent time exploring image layering and digital collage, and experimenting with three dimensionality and the breaking of the picture plane, in the form of sculptural objects adhered to the surface of her photographs. But these new photographs go back to a “straighter” photographic approach, with only a splash of layering and visual misdirection.

Some of the strongest of the Halloween-themed photographs play with the RIP (rest in peace) letters found on molded styrofoam tombstones that people put on their lawns to create fake graveyards. Getting up close to the letterforms, so the bubbled styrofoam and the painted surfaces become richly textural, Abeles highlights the graphic qualities of the letters and actively plays with light and dark contrast. In one image, she uses a mirror to double and invert the three letters; in another, she turns the letters sideways into vertical stack, and places a shopping bag underneath the torn edge, adding another graphic element that will appear again later in the show. Like Shannon Ebner’s rethinking of letters and symbols, Abeles takes the obviousness of the RIP and examines it more deeply, essentially isolating it and breaking it down until the inscription devolves into texture.

The other Halloween imagery on view is less durably recognizable as made by Abeles, but well crafted nonetheless. Tilted camera angles enliven many of the compositions, cropping the eye of an inflatable black cat, centering in on the hinged leg bones of a paper skeleton, and creating a doubled blur effect on the green face of a goblin. Additional works find skeletons climbing in windows and emerging from underground, witchy brides in lacy white with red light eyes and dripping black mascara looking gloomy, and disembodied bloody hands, heads, and brains left lying around. Abeles treats this commercial kitsch with attentiveness, but these are objects that inherently don’t have much nuance or complexity.

Four other photographs that extend the shopping bag motif found in one of the RIP works are tucked into a side gallery, but they’re actually the most intriguing works in the show. Continuing with the Halloween theme, they are studies of fake splatters of blood, like the ones that fill slasher movies. Here, the red spots wash across the surface of a THANK YOU shopping bag printed in half a dozen languages, the droplets forming into lonely spots, small pools, and scattered mists that cover the surface of the plastic bags. Abeles has cropped the bags down so that the letters become a boldly repeating graphic element, with gracias, merci, and arigato flipped and turned so that the words march around in sharp angles. Watery colored tints further complicate the compositions, and several of the works are printed large enough to fill a wall, further amplifying the combination of the enlarged letterforms and the bloody gore. In these setups, Abeles bring her sophisticated layering techniques back into use, in ways that are both boldly visual and wryly clever, the mix of sunny international politeness and dripping blood giving the photographs some punch.

It’s hard to predict what kind of Halloween we might have this year given the pandemic, or what we will ultimately feel safe doing on such a holiday – perhaps we’ll just be decorating for ourselves, trying to scare away today’s evil spirits. Abeles’s photographs thoughtfully combine formalism with a dash of commercial critique, all wrapped up inside the tropes and motifs of horror. They are both surface and a push underneath, allowing differing interpretations of their frights.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8000 and $20000 each, based on size. Abeles’ work has just begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years, with recent prices ranging between roughly $8000 and $11000 for the few lots that have publicly changed hands.

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