Paul Kooiker, Eggs and Rarities

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Art Paper Editions (here), Dashwood Books (here), and FOMU (here). Cloth hardcover with silver edging, 172 pages, with 164 black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays. In an edition of 2000. Coinciding with an exhibition at FOMU – Photography Museum Antwerp (June 29-October 7, 2018). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a gathering of 100 photographs called Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful). In the years since, it has been recognized as a landmark photobook, a wide ranging artistic statement in defense of crisp, clear-eyed straight photography and a centerpiece of the New Objectivity movement. Inside, it looked closely at plants and animals, factories and industrial subjects, landscapes and advertising still lifes, indeed nearly every genre of possible photographic imagery, each one seen in a style that highlighted the formal qualities of the subject matter. It definitively made the point that rigorous photographic seeing could be effectively applied to almost anything, with countless visual discoveries to be found hiding in plain sight.

Nearly a century later, the Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker has taken on a similar photographic challenge, but has emerged with noticeably divergent results. Eggs and Rarities brings together roughly a decade of the artist’s imagery, documenting the “encyclopedia of life” and covering most, if not all, the same genres and photographic tropes Renger-Patzsch did. But while Renger-Patzsch found the richness of deadpan certainty in the world around him, Kooiker has revealed almost the opposite, where the familiar and the obvious are seen with a dose of uncertainty, often verging on the surreal.

Kooiker’s still life photographs set the tone, each one both a straightforward formal study and a slightly off kilter mystery. A close up examination of a leather glove falls right into this nether zone of uneasiness – the leather looks convincingly like skin (it’s covered in tiny wrinkles and bumps), but a tiny seam along the fingers has been sewn up, creating a Frankenstein illusion of a real hand sutured together. A similar sense of surreal ominousness hovers around a fallen ice cream cone, a trail of footsteps in the snow, a greasy animal bone, a box perplexingly wrapped in fur, a close up eye (too close for comfort), and a hand covered in bubbles.

As Kooiker extends the parade of imagery, it’s as if he’s firmly anchored us in a certain freaky mindset, and the once mundane now takes on an edge of subtle weirdness. A worn teddy bear and a broken wine glass allude to untold stories, but even the still lifes of fruit and pastries, a roll of toilet paper, a hairbrush (with insistent bristles), a sink faucet, a pair of wigs, a pile of bricks, a lava lamp, and a burning candle all simmer with something more than they reveal. Kooiker echoes Renger-Patzsch’s ordered advertising studies with a few of his own, but even these images of glassware, watches, and high heeled shoes feel slightly skew, the shoes hanging from roughly torn holes in the paper backdrop and the metal watch bands becoming woven into the wood latticework on which they sit.

As the title of the photobook implies, eggs are a repeated motif interleaved throughout the flow of imagery. Kooiker’s eggs aren’t everyday chicken eggs though – he’s chosen ostrich eggs or some other large and perfectly round type of specimen that he has then placed in various abstracted environments. The circular white orbs sit on shiny tabletops, hover in darkness, interact with geometric edges, cast shadows, recede into blur, and float against enveloping whiteness, intermittently interrupting the more obvious pictures and forcing us to look again and again at elemental round forms that defy easy identification.

Kooiker is perhaps best known for his female nudes, so it’s not surprising that a handful of nudes have found their way into this sequence. (As an aside, while there were portraits in Renger-Patzsch’s original photobook, there were no nudes.) The nudes here fit with the overall attention to form, but also with the unsettled mood – the subjects are largely seen as bodies, limbs, and curves (some with boots or high heels), but the way they have been positioned often implies some undefined narrative. Nude women are seen reading, lying on the kitchen table or on the stairs, tangled in window blinds or other bodies, or reoriented by veiled gauze, pantyhose, or mirrors, any erotic frisson made deliberately ambiguous by the arrangements and poses.

As Kooiker methodically ticks through his checklist of photographic genres, he subtly twists the vantage points toward the quietly cryptic. He often pairs young and old in portraits, or catches kids in moments of testing and exploration – playing in a bubblebath, cooking in a tutu, examining an ancient tree, lined up in a swimming pool, or petting a cat. Animals (and insects) are repeated visitors, each one, even a family of ducklings, given a hint of something odd. The shark swims menacingly, the bunny has a black stripe down its back, the snake hides in the grass, the polar bear is blocked by dark bars, and the zebra is misted by wet glass, each one both natural and unnatural.

The same can be said for the images here of train tracks, smoke stacks, the back of airplane, and other industrial details. Kooiker’s architectural photographs look for patterns in stairs, flattened planes of walls and windows, and squared off repetition in crumbling apartment block balconies, searching for geometric alignment. But steep church spires, strange pipes, twisting highway overpasses, and futuristic towers upend that reductive move toward abstraction, the built world clearly full of its own idiosyncrasies and quirks.

What makes Eggs and Rarities so consistently engaging is this constant tension between objectivity and subjectivity. Kooiker takes the structure and photographic cues associated with the rigor of Modernist vision and then subtly inserts a splash of the enigmatic or the merely baffling, jolting our expectations for how these kinds of images are supposed to function. Delivering such a heady mix of the playful, the surreal, and the bewildering requires the learned eye of a contrarian, one who can appreciate and caricature photographic history in the same image. Eggs and Rarities is a photobook that gets smarter each time you look at it, its careful balance always slightly tenuous.

Collector’s POV: Paul Kooiker is represented by Tegenboschvanvreden in Amsterdam (here) and Galerie Zink in Germany (here). Kooiker’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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