Photography Highlights from the 2017 Armory Show

When I first started to actually take real written notes at art fairs, more then a decade ago now, I began with the idea that it would be interesting to simply tally everything (all the photography that is) that was on view at a place like the Armory Show. This way, we could get an aggregate view of what was being offered, and then use that data to potentially discern some high level patterns, in the vein of more Shermans and less Germans in a given year for example. And while that statistical analysis did provide some insights into the bulk movements of vintage and contemporary photography, it ultimately didn’t tell us much about the separation of the photography that was truly rich in new or durably important artistic ideas and that which was just being dutifully shuffled through the marketplace.

In the subsequent years, I have moved more and more toward selecting a smaller subset of highlights, in the hopes of leaving behind the usual hustle and instead winnowing down the available pile of photography to the works that were worth thinking harder about. And at this year’s Armory Show, the resulting bunch came in at a grand total of 26 pictures. While a more generous hand might have added yet another 10 or 12 without much additional effort, these are the images that made me stop whatever I was doing and look again, mostly because it seemed like there was something new to be discovered in their presence. The very idea of a list of the “best photography at the Armory Show” seems like a fool’s errand, so let’s instead consider this a list of works worth searching out if you decide to wander the halls in the hopes of finding something thought provoking photography-wise. And so my commentary this year is less focused on the overall “what” of the photography on view, but on the more personal “why” of the ideas and artistic risks these works seemed to embody.

The slideshow below is roughly organized along my particular walking path through the fair, starting to the right out of the entrance gate and moving up through Pier 94 first and then on to Pier 92 via the metal stairs. The individual works are accompanied by description and analysis, along with linked gallery names, artist/photographer names, and prices where appropriate, to facilitate easy follow up.

Edwynn Houk Gallery (here): Sally Mann, $55000. This up close portrait of Mann’s daughter Virginia turns her face into an intimate study in texture. Most of the image is allowed to drift into a soft blur, except for the area around her nose and lips where the freckles are most noticeable. The old school collodion process adds to the physicality of the work, especially with its stained watery wash in the lower right hand corner, and the lens itself creates the tunneled dark corners that drive our attention to the center of the frame. Blown up to monumental size (in enlarged gelatin silver), the portrait is tenderly engulfing, her closed eyes offering a measure of contemplative quiet.

Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here): Eric Fischl, $35000 for the portfolio of 16 prints. Fischl is of course best known as a painter, and he brings that painterly eye for composition to these St. Tropez beach photographs. His images intermingle unassuming nudity with everyday beach banality, the gestures and poses melded into layered interactions. Lounging sunbathers are interrupted by beach umbrellas and stone columns, the movements of bodies seemingly arranged with an eye for off-kilter balance.

Galerie Kamel Mennour (here): Mohamed Bourouissa, $45000. This sculpture leverages imagery Bourouissa made while working on his recent film Horse Day, a powerful contemporary work that captures the lives of the urban horsemen of West Philadelphia. Here single frames have been transferred to car parts and sheet metal, bringing faces, animal parts, and a man in a fur coat and bowling shoes into juxtaposition with the sleek machined surfaces. The three dimensional dialogue feels tangled and rough, but emblematic of the lives the artist has documented.

Galeria Luisa Strina (here): Alfredo Jaar, $36000 each. These three prints are evidence of Jaar’s late 1970s public interventions in Chile, where signs asking “are you happy?” were placed on billboards, road sides, and on a city clock. During a time of political struggle and economic depression, they offered a kind of poetic opposition that still feels penetratingly fresh.

11R Gallery (here): Mariah Robertson, $25000. This new work is among Robertson’s most loosely exuberant. Gone (at least for the moment) are the representational photogram fragments and cutouts that used to offer us visual structure, now replaced by an explosion of splashy, drippy gestures that tumble across the surface of the photographic paper with unabashed vitality. Her darkroom experimentation here feels more expressive and free, full of abstract effervescence and controlled lyricism.

Albertz Benda (here): Fiete Stolte, $100. Using a customized photobooth with a metal structure to carefully frame the sitter’s eye, the artist was making individual portraits during the show. In each image, the sitter’s silhouette is captured in the pupil of his or her own eye. The works connect back to Brandt’s eye portraits of famous artists, but with a contemporary optical twist. (And yes, that’s me.)

Galeria Silvia Cintra + Box 4 (here): Miguel Rio Branco, $15000. This famous image (from the cover of one of the artist’s monographs) seethes with late afternoon color. As it moves from orange to red across the hanging sheet and the darker corner, the composition is interrupted by a splash of green (a plastic tarp) in the background. Rio Branco is well known for his photographic color exercises, and this one exudes glorious, enveloping warmth.

Galerie Alberta Pane (here): Romina de Novellis, $6500. De Novellis is perhaps best known as a performance artist, and several images in this booth captured her working on tedious, and ultimately endless repetitive tasks, like brushing wool or weaving flowers. Here she meticulously knits and ties knots in red yarn, creating an enclosure for herself that she will never finish. Her performances seem to slow time down just a bit, forcing us to wait and watch as she repeats each motion.

Lyles & King (here): Ethan Greenbaum, $6000. Greenbaum has been a restless experimenter with materials and printing methods, and new works on view in this booth find him continuing to test the limits of photographic surface. In this work, an image of wood (painted, scraped, and charred) has been printed on wood itself and carved to form textures that mimic the imagery. He’s taking the abstract urban surfaces of Siskind and turning them into nuanced three dimensional studies that smartly oscillate between photography and sculpture.

Espaivisor (here): Bleda y Rosa, $9000. This artist pair has been documenting battlefields for years now, particularly in Spain and other parts of Europe. This diptych shows us a modern view of the site of the 1755 Battle of Monongahela from the French & Indian War. A small overlooked monument hides amid the empty summer street, the disappearing remnants of history tucked away behind a chain link fence.

Carroll / Fletcher (here): Joshua Citarella, $12000. This sculptural work is actually a thoughtfully layered dissection of coltan and its increasingly central use in our everyday world. Mined in Congo and other unsettled regions of the globe, the material is used in the production of capacitors, which are central to the working of smartphones and other digital devices. Citarella’s work unpacks that chain, bringing together a digital color gradient (the elemental output of such technology), a series of digitally cut/copied images of coltan (the software copying and striped edge differences visible up close), and a slab of the textured material itself. Together, the work spans the physical and the virtual, smartly connecting the dots between the rough beginning and its computerized endpoint manifestation.

Ronald Feldman Gallery (here): Rico Gatson, $6000. This fabulous image is literally bursting with contagious joy. Tiny collaged Marvin Gaye throws his hands up with exultant energy, with colorful lines radiating from his body like bolts of feel good power. Hang this on your wall and you’d be hard pressed not to succumb to its positivity each and every day.

Vilma Gold (here): Stephen Dwoskin, $20000. This booth had several examples of multi-image collaged nudes by the experimental filmmaker. This work had me thinking of De Kooning’s women, where confident power intermingles with body parts that fit together with surreal unease. I was told the very top part of the work is likely the head of the artist himself, further confounding the gender mashup.

Rhona Hoffman Gallery (here): Deana Lawson, $25000. The way Uncle Mack holds his pump shotgun, I couldn’t help but think he was energetically playing it like an electric guitar. As in many of Lawson’s portraits, it’s the details that help tell the story – his scarred belly, the dangling cross, the sparse living room, and his watery eyes providing a few elusive clues to his love affair with his gun.

Sies + Höke Galerie (here): Talia Chetrit, $7000. In the past few years, Chetrit has been experimenting with playful nude self portraits that combine photography and female eroticism with brash dose of conceptual wit. Here she dons clear plastic overalls, her bold legs spread pose caught in a mirror. The introduction of the camera gives the setup a sense of deliberate agency, of showing and not showing with full awareness of the camera and its role in the encounter.

Jack Shainman Gallery (here): Kerry James Marshall, $40000. This black light photograph of the artist’s wife has a quietly seductive air, its colors skewed into tingling essences. I’ve always thought of black light as a party gimmick, but Marshall has used it with surprising effectiveness here, adding tonal subtlety and visual uncertainty to a relatively standard reclining pose.

Wentrup Gallery (here): Miriam Böhm, $4000 to $5000 each, based on size. These new works by the German photographer continue her intricate use of illusionistic rephotography. A painted green surface with the black lines of drawn cubes forms the basis for further overdrawing, the white painted lines added in another physical iteration, confusing our sense of order and perspective. These are the kind of conceptual works that require effort to puzzle out, and even once we understand what’s happening, they continue to provide a satisfying sense of dissonance and shifting reality.

i8 Gallery (here): Sigurdur Gudmundsson, €12000. Playfulness and humor inhabit some of the most memorable conceptual works from the early 1970s, and Gudmundsson’s contributions to this genre are worth discovering. Here he “concentrates” on the objects around him, lines being drawn to the hanging shirt, the hammer, and the rest of the nearby things. It’s both brainy and goofy, balancing pretentiousness and unpretentiousness with exacting intelligence.

Yancey Richardson Gallery (here): Zanele Muholi, $9000. Muholi seems to have figured out some kind of hidden portraiture formula. New self portraits seem to populate nearly every art fair I visit, and yet, they’re reliably original and thoroughly engaging. Here she’s donned a sparkly tiara and a flowing tower of a wig, her face darkened to extreme blackness. It’s an unexpected take on beauty, her penetrating shimmer-eyed stare overwhelming its eclectic princess surroundings.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art (here): Richard Misrach, $65000. At a time when the US/Mexico wall is of heightened national interest, Misrach’s Border Cantos series has a special resonance. This image turns on patterned geometries – the measured expanse of cabbage rows (dissolving into the morning mist), flanked by the receding angle of the existing border wall. It captures both the linear severity of the division, the prosperity of the industrial farming, and the strange juxtaposition of agriculture set so closely against the artificial barrier.

Galerie Kadel Willborn (here): Shannon Bool, €1800 to €6000 each, based on size. These works intermingle 1930s mannequin poses with carved artifacts from New Guinea, creating collaged photograms that artfully enable a clash of cultures. From afar, the wooden patterns appear like fashionable fabrics against the slinky silhouettes and draped backdrops, but if we look closely, Bool allows us to see her cut and tape transparency process. The result is works that are overtly constructed but are nonetheless elegant and refined, their incongruous archival combination somehow feeling natural.

Michael Hoppen Gallery (here): Sigmar Polke, $120000. This outstanding Polke combines multiple images and colored overpainting, creating an interplay between the nude and the smaller buildings and rain droplets (and their repeated forms). Its layered jumbled chaos feels energetic and experimental.

Osborne Samuel (here): Erwin Blumenfeld, $80000. This solarized portrait seems to divide along the center of the sitter’s face, creating a Picasso-esque tonal reversal that splits the subject in half. Especially near the nose and lips, this switch has a surreal dark/light effect, the blue toning of the print adding to its eerie quality.

On Stellar Rays (here): John Houck, $15000. This new work by Houck seems to cannibalize earlier ideas, allowing them replicate in many more iterative steps. Folds and edges are rephotographed in stages, creating layers upon layers of illusionistic image, paper, and fabric. It’s photography as sedimentary cross section, with each successive conceptual page laid atop the last in a seemingly never ending pile.

Galerie Jérôme Poggi (here): Sophie Ristelhueber, $8000. This bullet ridden Mobil sign comes from the artist’s early work in 1980s era Lebanon. Other images from the series capture a rubble strewn theater and pock marked buildings, but this image combines sublime formal elegance and documentary force. It has the echo of ruins, both enduring and forlorn.

SMAC Gallery (here): Cyrus Kabiru, $7500 (including sculpture). Kabiru’s wire construction eyeglass sculptures are becoming increasingly effusive and complex. This one combines buttons and wires into radiating circles and spikes of astonishing coolness, his handmade scavenged futurism its own unique rethinking of African style.

Read more about: Alfredo Jaar, Cyrus Kabiru, Deana Lawson, Eric Fischl, Erwin Blumenfeld, Ethan Greenbaum, Fiete Stolte, John Houck, Joshua Citarella, Kerry James Marshall, María Bleda y José María Rosa, Mariah Robertson, Miguel Rio Branco, Miriam Böhm, Mohamed Bourouissa, Richard Misrach, Rico Gatson, Romina de Novellis, Sally Mann, Shannon Bool, Sigmar Polke, Sigurdur Gudmundsson, Sophie Ristelhueber, Stephen Dwoskin, Talia Chetrit, Zanele Muholi, 11R Gallery, Albertz Benda, Bruce Silverstein Gallery, Carroll / Fletcher, Edwynn Houk Gallery, Espaivisor, Galeria Luisa Strina, Galerie Alberta Pane, Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Galerie Kadel Willborn, Galerie Kamel Mennour, i8 Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, Lyles & King, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Michael Hoppen Gallery, On Stellar Rays, Osborne Samuel, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, Sies + Höke Galerie, Silvia Cintra + Box 4, SMAC Gallery, Vilma Gold, Wentrup Gallery, Yancey Richardson Gallery, Armory Show

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