Rhea Karam, Somewhere/Elsewhere

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Small Editions (here). Spray-painted archival B-flute corrugated cover, double leporello binding, 8 x 10.75 inches, 54 pages. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 500 copies. (C0ver and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Big cities like New York are in a constant state of chaotic architectural flux. Buildings go up, buildings come down, and buildings are wedged in and shoehorned together, their edges and surfaces realigned and re-juxtaposed with each and every new construction project. As a result, brick walls meet decorative tiling, concrete abuts plywood, stone sits next to corrugated steel, and one color discovers another nearby, with the local textural combinations being renegotiated again and again and again over time. And most of this dynamic surface interplay goes largely unnoticed by busy pedestrians and passersby, who treat the specifics of the walls and facades that sweep by like a metastasizing peripheral backdrop to their daily lives.

Rhea Karam’s innovative photobook Somewhere/Elsewhere takes as its subject this seemingly unending flow of visual stimuli. Born in Beirut, raised in France, and now living and working in New York, Karam has built her artistic practice around urban walls – making photographs of walls and “wallscapes”, experimenting with collaged combinations of photographs and geometric shapes, intervening with painted or wheatpasted triangles around the city, and constructing intricate artist’s books that gather these works into alternate forms. Somewhere/Elsewhere is her fifth such book in the past handful of years, each one thinking about planes, symmetries, colors, and layers in elegantly unexpected ways.

All of the photographs in Somewhere/Elsewhere follow the same general rules. Each image crops the found walls of the city down to a sky-less, street-less visual fragment, where a line, border, or edge area between two walls (or other architectural features) runs vertically, creating a hybrid view with two flat planes of color and texture sharing the same compositional space. The scale of these observations is indeterminate – only when we see identifiable units like bricks, tiles, or concrete blocks can we actually begin to gauge how big any one slice of mixed wall might be. All of the photographs are seen frontally straight on, with little or no angled distortion, flattening the walls into squared off planes. These specific compositional choices turn out to be important, as by creating a consistent set of visual structures and geometries, Karam can then link the pictures together smoothly into one continuous flow, without interrupting the experience with disorienting changes of perspective.

Placing Karam’s photographs into a traditional photobook structure, say with bound pages holding one image each with white borders, would have created page turn rhythms, pauses, and discrete image separations, and these design decisions wouldn’t really have matched the larger stream of consciousness visual motion that the images seem to want. Somewhere/Elsewhere has instead been constructed with two double-sided leporellos mounted to the front and back covers, creating two stacks of folded imagery when the book is opened to the center. Each leporello has been built to telescope back toward the cover, meaning that each folded page is roughly half an inch smaller than the fold behind it, leaving strips of imagery along the far left and right sides (again as seen from opening the book at the center.) When opened from the first page and flipped through like a regular photobook, the page turns get increasingly thinner toward the center, at which point we move inside the folds and flip back to wider and wider pages until the left side has been finished; the process is then mirrored on the right side, moving from thin to thick and back again. Since all the photographs are physically connected together, the folds replicate the feeling of the edges and borders found in the pictures, linking all of the walls into one sweeping progression.

If we then fold the pages back across the gutter, the possibilities for interlocking and interleaving the pages quickly increase, meaning that we can juxtapose pictures next to each other almost at will. The book is also essentially reversible, in that if we flip it around “upside down”, it functions with no degradation of coherence, with the vertically squared off images working in either orientation. The title and artist’s name are reversed, making this flipping more explicit, and the covers are made of exposed corrugated board, so they have yet another edge pattern to add to the visual mix found in the photographs. All in, this is a thoughtfully designed photobook object that has been precisely coordinated to amplify the shifting patterns found in the images.

Karam is by no means the first photographer to notice the textures and surfaces of the city; in fact, she joins a long tradition of photographers of walls, graffiti, peeling paint, rough concrete, and other found urban exteriors, many of whom turned those discoveries into abstractions. Within this art historical context, Karam’s contemporary images are more structured and rigid than most, seeing the city walls within a particularly ordered visual system. In many ways, her photobook functions like a textile scrapbook, with swatches of patterns available for easy comparison and recombination. When the pages are unfolded and refolded, the planes of color and line are peeled back and overlapped, encouraging us to construct our own “wallscapes”.

Karam’s Somewhere/Elsewhere is an inspired example of embracing a relatively obvious or straightforward photographic subject but still finding a way to make it your own. This is a photobook filled with bold strips and stripes, and each additional image we discover seems to rebalance what came before. Layers and colors pile up with surprising elegance and complexity, leaving us with a fresh appreciation for the abstract possibilities found on the parade of city walls we routinely overlook.

Collector’s POV: Rhea Karam does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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