Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by RVB Books (here). Soft cover, trifold folio (11×9) with unbound inlaid sheets and red elastic binder, with black and white and color photographs in multiple processes (offset, photocopy etc.) and 1 separate color coupler print. Includes texts by Clément Chéroux and the artist and a folded list of bank failures in the United States (2008-2013). In an edition of 500. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past half dozen years, we’ve seen plenty of photographers take on the challenge of documenting the effects of the recent economic crisis. For most of these artists, this has meant turning something abstract and largely invisible (the failure of the home mortgage system as an example) into something personal (a portrait of someone who lost their home); since the days of the Great Depression, photographers have put faces on hardships to make them understandable and relatable, and this foundation approach is still very much in use today.

But it is this uniformity of thinking that makes Penelope Umbrico’s photobook Out of Order stand out with such stark grace. Her conceptual portrait of the economic crisis (particularly the widespread failure of the banks) has no people, shows no disrupted families, and tells no intimate, empathetic tales of lost jobs. Instead it gathers together an suffocating pile of appropriated images of office desks and abandoned plants available on furniture liquidation websites during the crisis years, and arranges them into a metaphorical taxonomy of failure and its leavings.

What might seem like a dry cerebral exercise actually delivers a wide range of surprising subtleties and insights. The parade of desks is a trumpet fanfare for glorious productivity – sleek curves, polished angles, efficient geometries, all equipped with handy holes for wires and cables and organized for dense warrens of happy, functional workers. Seen here in their lackluster surroundings however, drowning in shadows, bad camera angles, and empty optimism, their Modernist lines feel just as bankrupt as the banks; it just didn’t work out like we’d planned.

Umbrico’s images of forlorn office plants provide a smart foil for the machined edges of the desks. Brought in to naturalize the soulless environment of the office, the now ownerless plants (both real and fake) feel like sad window dressing – their attempt to balance out the relentless push for efficiency was never enough, always just a con.

This is a photobook where the design of the object is truly integral to the conceptual structure of the artist’s argument; there is something devastatingly sophisticated about creating a photobook about economic disaster that literally falls apart in your hands. None of the pages is bound into the book – instead the book operates more like a loose folio, where pages shift around and easily (and intentionally) become misaligned. Most of the images are spread across the gutter, and so when folded up, become mismatched halves and hybrid combinations that break down representational function into simple form. Desks become sculptural squares, rectangles, and smooth arcs of dark and light, are allowed to dissolve into grain or pixelization, and then marry up to one another in unexpectedly elegant blends, echoes, and juxtapositions.

The images are printed on at least three different types of paper (glossy, matte, and flimsier newsprint) using alternate processes, and are often resized inward from the edges, creating half and three quarter pages that flutter in between, in layers. The depressingly exhaustive list of banks that actually failed between 2008 and 2013 (489 in all) folds out into a tall spreadsheet ladder that will easily fall to the floor if you let it. Spend half an hour paging through this book and you will undeniably be left with an unruly disorganized mess (mirroring the double entendre of the title), which is of course, just exactly perfect.

A different manifestation of this whole project could easily have been a throwaway gimmick (desks, plants, so what?), so it’s a testament to Umbrico’s talents as a conceptual thinker that this photobook object is so nuanced and compelling. For all its trappings of arms length investigative objectivity, I like its distinct point of view – she sees systemic failure and shows us its consequences with richness, visual thrift, and blunt matter-of-factness. Umbrico’s book offers no despairing looks, no head in hands frustration, and no running away to the mountains, but its indirect indictment of our recent failures is no less insightful or stinging.

Collector’s POV: Penelope Umbrico is represented by Mark Moore Gallery in Culver City (here). Her work has begun to reach the secondary markets in recent years, but there have been too few outcomes to chart much of a price history. As a result, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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