Ray Mortenson: Full Scale / Meadowland Still Lifes @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale black and white works, framed in black and not matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (with thin black borders) and were made between 2002 and 2003. The prints come in two sizes: 40×50 or 50×60, both in editions of 2; there are 2 images in the large size and 7 images in the small size on display. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: I’ll bet if you did a quick study of the visitors to Ray Mortenson’s new show, a decent percentage would exhibit the following behavior: drift in, scan the walls in one continuous circular movement (like being on a moving walkway), and then exit without registering much more than a cursory summary: big pictures of middle grey garbage. The reason I think this is happening is that these images defy a quick ADD reading, and only reveal themselves after slow, elemental looking, when this unruly mess of hard, dirty ugliness is quietly transformed into something astoundingly beautiful.

I found the scale of these works to be the key to their originality. Mortenson has carefully controlled the depth of field, choosing cross sections of decaying strata, all in generally the same plane so that everything is in crisp focus. He has then enlarged the images to make the objects life sized; a rusted shovel head, rubber tire, or soda can is shown in normal one-to-one proportions. As a result, the compositions have the feel of excavations, where layers of natural and manmade refuse are mixed into a dense bog of junk: railroad ties, rebar, the cover of an old oil drum, tree trunks, girders, a broken fan, pipes, roots, a ripped car seat, plastic bags, and scraggly weeds are deposited like sediments, in chaotic, messy, almost abstract formations. These gatherings of forgettable stuff are then photographed in a palette of muted grey, with very few contrasts of pure white, bringing juxtapositions of textures and surfaces to the forefront.

Given their large scale, the viewer is enveloped by this environment, and each image offers details to be deliberately unpacked and discovered. These specifics move at the pace of a geological dig: look over here between the vertical stripes of an old iron fence, brush away some dirt to see a slippery bag, prod further to get beneath the strands of weeds. It’s easy to get lost in the small pieces, traversing the face of the pictures, seeing the fragments of a dark hole in a boiler or a pile of concrete chunks. This is one of the most consistent shows I have seen in quite a long time; every single image offers a surprisingly lyrical view of this swampland of gritty detritus.

I suppose this show will appeal most to that ever shrinking tribe of purists who find enchantment in the lushness of a masterfully executed gelatin silver print. But these pictures aren’t a throwback to the 1970s. Their combination of scale and detail is altogether contemporary, but if you fail to invest the time in really looking at them, all you’ll see is a heap of trash.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show have two prices: the larger 50×60 prints are $11000 each and the smaller 40×50 prints are $9500 each. Mortenson’s work is largely absent from the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only real option for interested collectors.

While I liked almost all of the images in this show, my favorite was UNTITLED (Chain Link), 2002; it’s on the far right in the middle installation shot. I liked the waves of twisted chain link fence, punctuated by slashes of angled pipe, a line of rubber wire, and a shredded plastic bag. The fencing is furrowed and wiggled, like a thicket of manmade bushes.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Review: NY Photo Review (here)
Ray Mortenson: Full Scale / Meadowland Still Lifes
Through May 27th
560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

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