Richard Learoyd: Curious @Pace and @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A two-venue exhibit, spread across gallery spaces on the 2nd and 9th floors.

At Pace/MacGill Gallery, 9th Floor, through June 28, 2019. Shown against green walls in the two room gallery space:

  • 6 gelatin silver contact prints mounted to board and aluminum, 2018, each sized roughly 48×78 inches, in editions of 7+2AP

At Pace Gallery, 2nd Floor, through May 4, 2019. Shown against light and dark grey walls in the three room gallery space:

  • 5 gelatin silver prints on hand coated paper hinged to board, 2017, each sized 64×95 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 7 gelatin silver prints on hand coated paper hinged to board, 2017, each sized roughly 89×68 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 7 camera obscura Ilfochrome photographs mounted to aluminum, 2018, 2019, sized between roughly 18×21 and 44×38 (or reverse), unique

(Installation shots for both venues below.)

Comments/Context: Monumental scale has traditionally been a stubbornly difficult challenge for photography. While making a room sized painting was largely a function of stitching together strips of canvas and building a large enough stretcher infrastructure, making photographs that cover a similarly sized wall has proven to be a much tougher technical nut to crack, the work of Gursky and Struth notwithstanding.

In essence, making a very large analog photograph comes down to three basic constraints – the size of the negative (and therefore the camera that makes that negative), the size of the enlarger, and the size of the paper; to craft a very large digital photograph, the resolution of the image and the width of the printer (the paper length can be extremely long on a roll) are the key limiting factors. In both cases, many extremely large photographs suffer from over enlargement issues (grain or breakdown toward pixels or noise), and invisibly seaming together two or more paper sheets into one contiguous work requires a level of exacting precision that very few artists can reliably execute.

Given Richard Learoyd’s history with custom-built cameras and his patience in exploring how long exposures can enhance sharpness, it isn’t entirely surprising that he would take up the challenge of monumental (analog) scale. In his newest show, spread across two gallery venues, he employs two separate technical approaches to achieve his results, each offering its own advantages.

In the Pace space, Learoyd has gotten around the usual paper size limits by opting for hand-coated watercolor paper instead of commercially-produced photographic paper. But to take advantage of the increased size of the paper, he had to build a custom enlarger big enough to handle his 20×24 inch negatives. Given these workflow enhancements, he has likely made the largest gelatin silver prints ever produced.

The more important artistic question is what Learoyd has chosen to do with this newfound scale. In this case, he has opted to stay inside the controlled confines of the studio (where nearly all of his previous work has taken place), but to tackle subjects that are much physically larger than his usual portraits and still lifes. A set of seven images captures an elegant white horse rearing up on its hind legs, and while not fully life sized, they are impressively imposing when seen as a room-filling installation. While we might be tempted to immediately see these pictures as a contemporary rework of Eadweard Muybridge’s classic Animal Locomotion sequences, they aren’t actually a time series. They seem instead to be a selection of very similar moments, each variant frame a separate instance of the horse rising up. The powerful pose that the horse makes is itself its own art historical motif – Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps is essentially the same pose (except reversed to face the other direction) – so Learoyd is overtly connecting back to an established tradition of equine symbolism with this setup. His photographs consciously rethink that stylized device, adding an element of vital, almost awkward reality. In the shadowy light of the studio, the whole repeated scene feels slightly forced and mannered, in a way that provides contrasts to our American myths of frontier cowboys and wild horses.

Learoyd has also used this same large scale system to make photographs of crashed cars. Here he has followed a progression of sorts, starting with fully smashed vehicles, moving to those that have crashed and burned, and then eventually pointing his camera at those that have crashed, burned, and rolled, their central frames bent into fragile U-shaped curves. Even though these metal carcasses are huge, Learoyd’s car crash images are still essentially still lifes, just in a much more massive (but not life sized) way. While Arnold Odermatt and Nicolai Howalt have both made memorable smashed car pictures, Learoyd’s photographs shine in their delivery of crisp tactile detail. Each subject is an aggregation of powerfully distressed surfaces – cracked windshields, twisted metal, bubbled paint, melted plastic, flattened tires, crumpled air bags, and crushed frames. The charred and rolled specimens are even more crackly, the soot stained metal and blackened crunchy residues giving them a dusty artifact look, adding a layer of stylistic similarity to Irving Penn’s cigarette butts.

Upstairs, Learoyd heads outside and takes a different approach to handling the scale problem. Using an 8-foot square portable camera obscura of his own design, he has made images in some of American landscape photography’s best known locations – Yosemite National Park and the coast at Big Sur (both in California). It takes a certain amount of confidence to deliberately follow in the artistic footsteps of Watkins, Muybridge, Ansel Adams, and other masters, especially when making pictures from very similar vantage points. Adams famously made what he called “mural sized” images of some of his best known vistas (including those from Yosemite), but these were carefully crafted enlargements; Learoyd has actually made huge 48×77 inch negatives with his unique camera, and so his prints are immense contact prints – and as a result, their edge to edge crispness is nothing short of astonishing. Every rock fall, every swath of evergreen trees, every river bed, and really every detail in these landscapes is clear and sharp; only the momentary movement of the waves in the Big Sur images creates some softness. So even though we have all seen Half Dome and El Capitan before, Learoyd has made us see them again with new eyes. Clifford Ross took on a similar mountain landscape challenge with a high resolution digital composite approach several years ago with comparable results – the detail at all distances in both artist’s works is almost too much to take in, but there is also a kind of wonder that comes from being able to slowly discover so many nooks and crannies of interest. Learoyd’s compositions are more intellectually clinical and less majestically dramatic than those of his forefathers, his deliberate restraint (like that found in his studio still lifes) quieting the mood and allowing us to look even more closely.

It’s hard not to come away authentically impressed by the innovation Learoyd has displayed in these various projects, but my overall enthusiasm for the resulting images is somewhat more muted. Both the landscapes and the horse portraits are undeniably skilled, but once I got beyond their technical achievements, my interest in them waned. The car crash still lifes offer more durable avenues for exploratory thinking, the formal and textural aspects of the objects balanced by an unsettling visceral fascination with the intense violence that created them. That echo of destructive force gives those pictures their particular bite, while the others are more reliant on their massive physical presence to hold our attention.

Collector’s POV: The individual works in these shows range in price from $40000 to $75000, based on size. Learoyd’s prints have very little secondary market history at this point, with only a handful of transactions in the past few years. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $30000 and $60000.

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