Mike Slack, THE MUTATION: Walking with Manzoni @Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (NYU)

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of connected rooms and narrow hallways on the main floor of the building. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2021 and printed in 2022. Each is sized roughly 11×16 inches, and the prints are all APs. The show also includes a series of quotations (printed on walls and pillars) drawn from Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), in a recent translation by Michael F. Moore. The exhibit was organized by Gaia Giani. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As more and more pandemic-era artistic projects from the past two or three years are now finally surfacing, it’s becoming clear just how much the disruptions of that tumultuous period provided intriguing jolts and redirections of inspiration. For the Los Angeles-based photographer Mike Slack, his serendipitous COVID connection came in the form of a new English translation (by Michael F. Moore) of Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). 

Initially, Slack’s ideas were quite literal – Manzoni’s book is set in 17th century Northern Italy during a plague that swept through Milan; Slack’s plan was to loosely follow the original narrative (that takes place over the course of year) and to make photographs that connected that story of the past to the realities of our own pandemic present. He made three extended trips to Milan and its surroundings in 2021, and at first, seemed to follow the working style embedded in his 2017 photobook The Transverse Path (reviewed here) and in his earlier Walking in Place photobooks made in New Orleans and Berlin – make found observations on foot, becoming something of an eclectic discoverer guide, and offering an elusive “story” of sorts in the form of visual parallels, associations, and echoes.

And while all of the images that Slack made on those Italian visits do apparently have some link to Manzoni’s story or the author’s life history, along the way Slack seems to have made an important conceptual shift, stepping back from a content-driven following of plot and narrative and pushing further into a process-centric exploration of “translation” and “adaptation” in many forms. Translation lives in Manzoni’s book, and Slack’s project, on a variety of levels – the story itself is framed as a retelling of an earlier work; Manzoni wrote several versions of the novel, and translated it himself into the Florentine dialect; and Slack was reading a vibrant new translation into English – so the layers of linguistic recomposition here are nested tightly. Then add Slack loosely “translating” the words and themes of the book into photographs found while wandering, and following the adjacent threads of biological (and pandemic) “mutation”, optical trompe l’oeil, and other mysterious visual interpretations and retellings, all of these reworkings ultimately coming together in a set of pictures that feel decidedly open-ended.

The installation of Slack’s photographs at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò isn’t exactly what we might expect from a gallery show – the pictures are displayed on various walls in the not entirely well lit elevator lobby, in an adjacent side room, and around a corner into another series of small low-ceilinged spaces, with quotes from Manzoni’s book pasted here and there on the columns and walls (and even above one doorway). The effect is quietly engaging, something akin to wandering the halls of academia but being drawn in by something outside a professor’s office, to the point of my not being entirely sure I had found all the photographs in the show. A brighter, more open installation (or well sequenced photobook) will likely feature the photographs better, but as shown, the modest eccentricity of the tight transitory setup encourages some self-starting exploratory curiosity, which might actually be a decent match for the mood Slack’s photographs evoke.

Stack’s story begins with two understated but poignant symbols – a stone orb painted like a globe but now chipped and worn, and a paper airplane left overturned near an ivy-covered rock face – letting us know that our world isn’t what it once was, and our jet set lifestyles have been grounded at least for the moment. These are followed by a series of subtle images where nature is taking over, or at least reasserting some authority: rotting stone buildings and wild dogs spotted amid encroaching greenery, floridly blossoming mushrooms on tree branches, and a number of buildings, footpaths, and bridges fighting with stubborn invasions of grass and ivy. Cracks are similarly well-represented – in rocks, in grassy meadows, and in paving stones, among other surfaces – and smothering effects are felt by dense growths of round leaves and milkweed strands caught in twigs. Together, these images set a scene of tenuous fragility, with nature and civilization in a constant mode of almost invisible confrontation. An image of a delicately broken and empty egg shell and another of a small twig suspended from a spiderweb make almost literal the idea of a world being upended, fractured, and “hanging by a thread”.

Slack makes the plague and disease references more prominent in a range of other pictures, many of which seem to feature cause-and-effect natural mutations and adaptations to the changing world. He shows us an extra large insect, strange plant forms reaching and groping, a caterpillar with long hairy whiskers, a horse with a fogged eye, and a tree branched into two trunks. Perhaps the most unsettling of these finds is a tendril of unidentified transparent goo hanging down, like some kind of alien excretion.

When Slack turns his attention to the built environment, harder edges and angles emerge, but mysteries continue to percolate around the edges. Geometric forms are interrupted by layers of shadows, stray wires, and other cast patterns, the modernity of the city mixing with more ancient lines. Trompe l’oeil painting around a brick archway adds another element of confusion, as do various echoes of circles – a dark circle (like a portal to the underworld) in paving stones, another circle on a reflective shop window, and flares of lights that dissolve into constellations of still more circles.

These perplexing discoveries then lead to an even more resonant selection of possible messages (or are they secrets?) An isolated hand from a mural or painting offers us a come closer bend of a finger. A seemingly massive stone face whispers into the flatness of a wall. A flock of inexplicable square black markings decorates a cobbled street. A cosmic diagram of orbital scratches and wet bubbled planets coalesces behind a window. And a white stripe of paint across a bricked plaza has worn away to what my eye saw as the shape of a walking leg. Each one feels like a faint, almost communication from afar, just a bit too obtuse to be sure about the directness of its meaning.

All of these deliberate ambiguities and potential interpretations then eventually wander back to Manzoni himself, and the translation of his novel, but of course, by way of various modes of misdirection. In one pairing, a picture of a picture (i.e. a Slack photograph of a painting) offers us a glimpse of the face of the dashing young Manzoni, while another image of a street scene on the Via A. Manzoni is once again interrupted by angled shadows. In another pairing, a page from Manzoni’s manuscript, with his own edits and markings, is placed near a page from Moore’s hand-scrawled translation, again with encrustations of edits and changes; the combination of the two leaves us inside a labyrinth of words, each one mediated by another layer of possible retranslations.

While plenty of photographic flaneurs have wandered through great European cities like Milan making images of found oddities and poetic visual discoveries, Slack’s project centers that kind of searching in a pleasingly complex puzzle box of interpretation, allowing us to connect the dots between Manzoni, Moore, and ultimately Slack however we might see fit. In this way, photographic spontaneity and chance are given a hint of context, mood, and meaning, the mutating variants and themes of both the 19th century novel and the 21st century pandemic evoked by the contemporary details in the photographs. Whether the bewildering echoes we think we see are there or not hardly matters – Slack has reframed our perception in such a way that the impressions are purposely unexplained, leaving us room to re-interpret them yet again. It is this evolving sense of possible explanation and re-decoding that gives this project its engaging slip-through-your-fingers evasiveness.

Collector’s POV: Since this is essentially a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Mike Slack is represented by L’Agenzia Micamera in Milan (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail or connection directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar) remain the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Nazraeli Press (here). Debossed linen hardback with dust jacket, 11 x 13 inches, 76 pages, with 57 duotone photographs. Includes an essay ... Read on.

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