Mona Kuhn: Between Modernism and Surrealism @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 black-and-white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against beige walls in the main gallery space. (Installation shots below.)

The show includes the following works:

Mona Kuhn

  • 7 solarized gelatin silver enlargement prints, 2021, 2022, sized 20×15 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 12

Bill Brandt

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1957, sized roughly 9×8 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1953, sized roughly 9×8 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1977, sized roughly 9×8 inches

Man Ray

  • 1 gelatin silver print on matte surface paper, 1943, sized roughly 10×8 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print on carte postale paper, 1933, sized roughly 3×5 inches

Erwin Blumenfeld

  • 1 gelatin silver print, c1945, sized roughly 13×11 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, n.d., sized roughly 9×12 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver enlargement print, n.d., sized roughly 14×11 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver enlargement print, n.d., sized roughly 11×9 inches

Dora Maar

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1931-1936, sized roughly 12×9 inches

László Moholy-Nagy

  • 1 gelatin silver enlargement print on warm-toned matte surface paper, 1929, sized roughly 10×7 inches

Comments/Context: The past two decades have been a tumultuous time for the nude in contemporary photography. Particularly in the case of the female nude form as seen by male photographers across the history of the medium, there has been a slow but meaningful recalibration of traditional mindsets, where the once dominant male heterosexual gaze of the past has been more broadly called into question, and overlooked or under appreciated female and queer perspectives on the nude have gained visibility.

Mona Kuhn has been methodically exploring the nuances of the nude form (both female and to a lesser extent male) during this period of cultural and artistic reconsideration, quietly cementing her place as a new voice thoughtfully re-imagining this timeless subject matter. Across a handful of projects and series (most of which have taken shape as exhibitions and photobooks), she has worked in both black-and-white and in color, explored gardens, backyards, Venetian palazzos, dry deserts, and lush tropical jungles as settings, and actively experimented with window reflection, shadow layering, light flares, foreground and background staging, and other compositional techniques, in a few cases pushing toward near abstraction. Along the way, she has crafted an aesthetic path for herself that consistently celebrates rich beauty and sensuality.

Kuhn’s newest project, Kings Road, uses some 1920s era Modernist history from her hometown of Los Angeles as the starting point for another round of experimentation with the nude form. LA has an impressive collection of Modernist houses and buildings tucked into into the hills and canyons that have provided artists with inspiration over the years, and Kuhn has chosen the 1922 home of Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler as her setting. (As an aside, Catherine Opie used several other Modernist houses in LA as subjects for her own imaginative photo/video series, reviewed here). In doing her background research on Schindler, she unearthed an old love letter he wrote to an unnamed woman, and this discovery kicked off the idea of imaginatively staging a female presence in the Schindler house, like a ghost or a fleeting memory. To better align this conceptual plan with the aesthetics of the earlier time, Kuhn decided to dig deeper into solarization, a technique used by a number of Surrealist and Modernist photographers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Solarization creates some unexpected tonal reversals of light and dark and halo effects, especially along edges of transition and outlines, and when Kuhn applies this technique to her images of closely cropped female faces, she pushes them toward eerie mask-like visages. In “Realm”, “Emblem”, and “Portrait Revealed”, the faces are often divided or bisected, washing into blown out lights and reversed darks, in some cases isolating the head and hair as though disembodied and floating on air. These portraits turn the familiar into the elegantly strange, the faces seeming to shimmer and shine amid the visual morphs and inversions.

When Kuhn steps back a bit further, she is better able to incorporate features of the Schindler house into her compositions, using cast shadows from ivy leaves, window frames, and other geometric grids, as well as misted glass reflections and darkened room corners to further amplify the enigmatic mood. “Spectral” and “Silhouette” match the lines of bent arms with the solarized shadow forms, creating intermingled layers of light and dark patterning, where the figures almost seem to disappear into the shifting light. Standing nude forms are similarly ghosted and dematerialized, in “Interleaving” by dappled leaf patterns behind windows and in “Presence” by a subtle doubling amid the encroaching darkness.

This show is quite a bit more powerful and memorable than a typical gathering of new work because Kuhn’s pictures have been grounded in a smartly edited selection of historical photographs that provide some context for her solarization aesthetics. With its deep vintage holdings in some of the relevant artists, Edwynn Houk Gallery is particularly well positioned to provide this comparative dialogue, and relevant Surrealist and Modernist works are liberally mixed in with Kuhn’s contemporary works, creating visual echoes across time. Kuhn’s angled arms connect back to works by Bill Brandt and Man Ray, her standing forms recall mirrored and doubled efforts by Brandt and Erwin Blumenfeld, her solarized faces are matched by similar portraits by Man Ray, Blumenfeld, and Dora Maar, and there’s even a parallel of leafy shadows cast across a nude body to be found between Kuhn’s effort and a Moholy-Nagy nude. The result is a strong feeling of Kuhn understanding, acknowledging, and leveraging the past, and then moving forward to add her own unique contributions to the existing genre.

What’s intriguing about these pairings is that Kuhn’s use of solarization is hardly ever truly surreal or deliberately jolting; instead she uses the technique to create a kind of lyrical mystery that fits the underlying narrative of the unknown woman in Schindler’s life. Kuhn envisages this figure as seductively ethereal, passing through Schindler’s house like a spirit and haunting his daydreams like an impressionistic hallucination. In this way, she’s redirected solarization in her own direction, infusing it with a fresh blast of energy and life.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by artist:

  • Mona Kuhn: $8000 each
  • Bill Brandt: $20000, $26000, $26000
  • Man Ray: $45000, $115000
  • Erwin Blumenfeld: $45000, $65000, $65000, NFS
  • Dora Maar: $65000
  • László Moholy-Nagy: $115000

Kuhn’s work has little consistent secondary market history, although prints do appear at auction from time to time. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Bill Brandt, Dora Maar, Erwin Blumenfeld, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Mona Kuhn, Edwynn Houk Gallery

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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