Michele Abeles, Zebra @47 Canal

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale photographic works, displayed against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. 6 of the works are archival pigment prints, framed in white and unmatted, and undated. Each is sized roughly 42×30 and is available in an edition of 5. The other 2 works are dye sublimation prints with ceramic tile and epoxy, from 2016. These works are sized roughly 49x36x6 and are unique. A monograph of Abeles’ work over the past seven years (also entitled Zebra) was recently published by Sadie Coles HQ/47 Canal (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At Michele Abeles’ last gallery show at 47 Canal (in 2013, at the gallery’s previous space, reviewed here), it was possible to see the hints of some new conceptual directions in her work. Photographic imagery was being recombined and layered with even more frenetic abandon, but there was also the sense that Abeles was trying to figure out how to reintroduce some personal touch and physicality to the highly manipulated compositions. In those works, she experimented with two new interventions – covering the imagery with darkly tinted Plexiglas and adding gestural painted lines directly on top. At the time, these attempts felt provisional, like she was still searching for both the root of the problem and the appropriate aesthetic answer.

What’s exciting is that in her most recent works, we see Abeles triangulating in on some more robust and elegant solutions. Two of the new offerings feel like extensions of the original line of thinking, but with the addition of a more deliberately sculptural presence. Stacks of imagery continue to pile up and interrupt each other, and familiar motifs (the graphic white subway tile, the looping silver chain etc.) are reused, but new visual ideas like a smeared scan and a bold black spiral have entered the mix as well, the graffiti-like gestures emphatically sitting on top like personal tags. Both of these works have then been built up into three dimensions using white ceramic tile, a physical echo of the digital pattern we have seen before. This sculptural quality breaks down some of Abeles’ digital machinations and grounds us in the here and now, the object reasserting its primal authority over the imagery.

The rest of the new works on view start fresh, leaving behind these overt links to her artistic past. Abeles begins by taking photographs of anonymous retail transactions, where disembodied clerks (mostly just arms and hands) remove security tags, ring up sales, and wrap up purchases. In an online world where every click is tracked and associated with a name and credit card number, the old school cash transaction is the last domain of private shopping, and in an unlikely inversion, the human touch and interaction actually provide a measure of personal security.

Abeles then takes these various cashier moments at pharmacies and fashion boutiques and loads them up on her screen/tablet, which becomes a kind of artistic substrate of its own when she scatters droplets of liquid across the surface. When her blotches and spills are made of clear liquid (maybe water), the bubbles create magnifying and distorting properties, turning the gridded pixelations of the screen into rainbow edged meshes and fish eye blobs. And when her gestures are made with what looks like paint (it’s colored and opaque), she gets surface additions that look like expressive brush marks, or wet pull aparts, or intentional smudges. In both cases, she then rephotographs the screen, creating end product artworks that collapse the underlying imagery, the technical/optical details of the screen mediation, and the physical marks/watery interventions into one integrated experience.

There is something quite satisfying about what Abeles has done in these pictures – she has started with a simple but culturally symbolic purchase process and proceeded to intelligently interrupt it twice, once with the ubiquity of the screen, and then again with her chance-driven drops and splotches, without entirely disrupting the flow of the original idea. The works are both pictures of something overlooked and conceptual interpretations of those puzzlingly resonant initial images.

In the end, her artworks are evolving to consider the estranging see-saw of modern life – moving from comfortable physical anonymity, to digitally processed homogeneity and tracked control, and all the way back to the defiant reassertion of personal touch. This gives them more relatable vitality. And like many who have struggled with the limitations of the virtual world of imagery, Abeles is tugging her artworks back into a kind of uneasy balance, where one domain is being forced to actively negotiate with the other.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The sculptural works incorprating ceramic tile are $18000 each, while the photographic prints are $9500 each. 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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