Ori Gersht, Altered States @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller project room. The show includes works from two different projects.

From the series Becoming:

  • 10 archival pigment prints, 2021, each sized roughly 24×28 to 39×108 inches, in editions of 6

From the series On Reflection:

  • 7 archival pigment prints, 2014, each sized roughly 16×13 to 67×52 inches, in editions of 6

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the better part of the last decade, Ori Gersht has been experimenting with the visual (and symbolic) possibilities of controlled explosions, particularly as they are applied to the still life genre. In blasting away at flowers and fruits, his projects have simultaneously asked us to reach forward and back, artistically reconsidering the age-old traditions of painting while leveraging the most technologically advanced photographic approaches for capturing split second destruction.

Over the years, his successive projects have upended various subgenres of still life subject matter with a dizzying range of unorthodox process inventiveness. In his 2018 gallery show (reviewed here), he isolated single stem florals, and using a flash freezing technique, made violent explosions that turned the carefully chosen specimens into smoking disintegrations and blizzards of confetti-like petals. He also set up elemental Morandi-like arrangements of ceramic bottles and vases, only to explode them into toppling shards and bursting fragments using an air rifle. Both projects laid metaphorical connections on top of the studio exercises, attempting to tie the creative destruction to something more deeply resonant.

The controlled shattering of glass provides the technical basis of Gersht’s most recent project Becoming, which is the likely reason a group of images from his series On Reflection (last seen in his 2015 gallery show, reviewed here) is reprised in the side room. In that earlier project, the artist set up silk flower replicas of 17th century floral paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder, and then placed the arrangements in front of mirrors, which he then shattered, making simultaneous photographs of the reflections from two separate directions. The resulting artworks combine those two splintered views, creating elusively shifting representations that smartly intermingle slices of competing perspectives.

In Becoming, Gersht has leveraged the glass-based learning from that previous effort, and layered it into a new technical framework. The central innovation in his recent photographs lies in the unexpected use of an old-school metal postcard rack as an organizing device. The kind he has employed is the one commonly seen at museums or tourist shops that bolts into a peg board wall and holds postcards facing outward in a tight grid of thin metal holders. In all but one of the works on view from the new series, the filled rack holds arrays of rectangular glass pieces with printed imagery, which Gersht then proceeds to smash, the photographs capturing the instant when the entire grid of individual images simultaneously implodes.

The strict, ordered geometries of the postcard rack arrangement offer Gersht a couple of different compositional options. One approach finds him using the grid to divide up a single image, with each individual glass tile contributing to the larger whole, almost like the equivalent of a digital pixel. A second method uses each spot in the grid to house a single discrete image, thereby creating arrays of pictures that can then be used to form like groupings and categories. All of the works in the series use reproductions of paintings held in the collections of the Rijksmuseum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as their source material, firmly rooting Gersht’s visual references in the art historical past.

For the single image compositions, the grid structure allows Gersht to explode the still lifes, floral arrangements, and even one landscape even more systematically than before – instead of one explosion splintering or smashing a frozen bouquet from one direction or another, the destruction is now controlled and ordered, instantaneously breaking pieces apart all at the same time. For the floral bouquets, this leads to works that shimmer all over, the tiny in-place explosions making a crisp painting more approximate, like it is spontaneously dissolving or disintegrating into dust. Gersht has housed two copies of each glass tile in each rack slot, so when the one in front explodes, it reveals the unbroken one in the back with the same image on it, creating a doubling effect which holds the larger composition together while still allowing it to crumble (or expand into space) before our eyes.

When Gersht puts separate images into the postcard rack slots, the effect is more like a dense grid of faces, from parades of white collared Dutch noblemen and women to clusters of Renaissance portraits, angels, and Madonnas. Gersht uses the same doubled-image infrastructure for these works, so when the front tiles explode and fragment, the back tiles seem to step forward to replace them, in some cases creating eerie multiplications of eyes and faces that fall away like broken masks of themselves. While the all-over destruction creates the same dusty caught-in-midair residue that was apparent in the still life works, the formal echoing of drapery folds, collar pleats, and gestural poses here is more pronounced. The works seem to oscillate between before and after in the same moment, allowing us to follow the small destructive transformations of line and shape more clearly. Gersht then wraps up the series with a large image of the accumulated broken shards (as though fallen on the floor); like Harry Callahan’s dense collages from the mid-1950s, it aggregates all of the broken piece parts into a busy interlocked pile, with fragments of broken faces scrambled and jumbled into a jagged amalgamation of overlapped leftovers.

Since these new works are less freighted with backstories and implications than his previous round of works, the Becoming images are freer to revel in their expressive surface qualities. In a sense, Gersht is taking resolutely figurative paintings and applying a disruptively abstracting force to them, leading to images that make hybrids of those opposing aesthetics. The best of the images have been actively interfered with (and destroyed) in a way that feels like thoughtful deconstruction rather than dull bomb throwing. His explosions break down the rigid order of art history, interjecting a blast of deliberate uncertainty that enlivens just as much as it degrades.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $10000 to $30000 each, based on size. Gersht’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $110000.

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