JTF (just the facts): A total of 64 color photographs, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against dark walls in a series of rooms on the 5th floor of the museum. The works were made between 2002 and 2018, and no process or edition information was provided on the wall labels. The show also includes one film made in collaboration with Maurizio Cattelan in 2016, and a video interview with the artist. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When we talk about the history of color in photography, we tend to highlight the very first early color experimenters and then jump forward decades to the powerhouse color innovators of 1970s America (William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, and others), but the trail tends to dissolve as we get closer to the present. Of course, color is everywhere in contemporary photography, but innovation in the use of color now seems to get underplayed as a point of value. We’ve methodically traced the steps from pictures that were in color to pictures that were about color – what should come next is an examination of what can be done with photographic color when it is meticulously controlled from the get go, as an intentional design element rather than a found reality.
As seen in this retrospective sampler show, the British photographer Miles Aldridge uses vibrant, saturated, brightly-lit color not only as a deliberate compositional tool but as an agent of theatrical provocation. His images meld a stylized fashion aesthetic with references to 1950s pop culture, film noir, and art history, leading to carefully controlled scenes that mix over the top glamour with a darker undercurrent of surreal exaggeration.
Aldridge’s most memorable photographs probe the emotional landscape of women’s lives, particularly the moments when the societal promises of beauty, romance, domesticity, and motherhood prove hollow, conflicted, or altogether false. Using eye-popping color as his graphic touchstone, he arranges scenes that amplify recognizable realities into sleekly stylish single frame dramas, often verging on black comedy. A series of kitchen setups makes 1950s style baking-while-fashionably-dressed incomparably glamorous, with a bored model going through the domestic motions with a rolling pin and a whisk, only to end up splayed on the counter for a rest and lighting a cigarette on the gas stove; her frustration eventually boils over, with her hair loosened, her gaze glassy eyed, and a carving knife stabbed into a sad looking birthday cake.
Aldridge returns to this theme of a woman at (or past) her breaking point in a range of other images. A woman dries her hair in the bathroom with a deadened empty stare, amid contrasting hues of matching green and salmon pink. Another screams in arm waving exasperation with a breakfast-in-bed tray on her lap. A third squats on the floor looking dangerously feral, surrounded by smashed dishes and a checkerboard of yellow and pink. A fourth appears wide eyed and open mouth astonished while talking on a pink telephone. And two pairs of women have become Stepford Wives zombies in the supermarket, competitively pushing carts overfilled with brightly colored products while wearing snappy dresses and floppy sunhats.
Aldridge balances this alienation with other images where confident women are unruffled by (or just blithely uninterested in) the chaos that surrounds them. A soccer mom strides through the practicing boys in a head to toe black ensemble with an orange bag to match their uniforms. Another elegantly pale woman checks her makeup while holding a wineglass and preparing to eat a heaping plate of steak tartare. And a series of images of women with their children find the mothers bored by the parenting tasks or stepping out in stylish looks that overshadow their cute children, from having a martini while the baby cries at the dinner table to striding through the park with a daughter while actually holding the customary pink balloon herself. Aldridge softens his palette slightly when he channels film noir heroines, particularly in an image of a bored looking wealthy woman, who sits on her desk with her dog, wrapped in luxury and ennui.
Still life setups offer Aldridge the opportunity to playfully interweave bold color and overt dissonance. He takes the sunny yellow color of a runny egg, roughly disrupts it with a stubbed out cigarette, and completes the image with a smear of pink lipstick. He drops a glass bottle of red Heinz ketchup on a black-and-white checkerboard floor, setting off the smash of energetic red with a pair of black patent leather heels. And he places a dollop of black caviar on the outstretched index finger of a woman, the small black eggs looking like climbing ants as her finger drags at the side of her open mouth.
The rest of the show spins across other less durably intriguing material, from a parade of celebrity portraits (Viola Davis and Sophie Turner adapt to Aldridge’s aesthetic most successfully) and a limp collaboration with Maurizio Cattelan (featuring nude models with matching dyed wigs and pubic hair) to a room full of stylized religious motifs, including restaged Madonnas, icons, haloed ecstatic faces, and Renaissance style portraits. In particular, the religious pictures feel like Aldridge is overtly trying to play the role of provocateur (like LaChapelle or Serrano), which makes the outcomes all the more dull, however technically proficient they might be.
What this retrospective-style show offers us is the lesson that when Aldridge can unleash his brash eye for surface color and connect it to an underlayer of resonant emotional bite, his compositions consistently feel inventive, but when those two are less well tethered, the results often fall flat. Even a small work like Aldridge’s portrait of a woman with a bright smile, big sunglasses, and a series of plastic surgery bandages has a delusionally aspirational sting that feels pitch perfect, so he clearly knows how to find the knife edge of cultural discomfort. When he pairs that kind of dry incisiveness with his candy-colored fantasias, the sparks can really fly.
Collector’s POV: Miles Aldridge is represented by Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles (here), Lyndsey Ingram in London (here), and Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich (here). Aldridge’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging between roughly $6000 and $20000.