Robert Polidori, Total Gnosis Enigma @Kasmin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale color photographs, framed in dark brown and unmatted, and hung against dark grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints mounted to Dibond, made in 2017. Physical sizes are either 63×50 (or the reverse) or 57×76 inches. All of the prints are available in editions of 10+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Spending time with Robert Polidori’s recent show pulled me down the admittedly esoteric rabbit hole of trying to think about the difference between photographically documenting a physical space, a piece of architecture, or even a city, and artistically interpreting it. It seems to me that it is likely possible to document a place without actively interpreting it (in the manner of much of what we backhandedly call “architectural photography”, although this is certainly debatable), but it is entirely impossible to interpret a place without documenting it in some fashion as well.

The reason I was puzzling over this thinly sliced definitional distinction is that Polidori’s new pictures feel like they are continuing a directional move toward interpretation that has been growing in his work, particularly over the past decade or so. In working his way though Havana, Chernobyl, post-Katrina New Orleans, and ultimately to his long term engagement with the Château de Versailles in France, I think it’s possible to see a slow aesthetic progression taking place, with Polidori’s controlled ordering of space and framing of textures and details becoming more refined and pronounced. In the last decade, that impulse has been getting stronger, from rethinking how complex cities like Mumbai continually restructure themselves (reviewed here) to adding doubled artistic reinterpretation (images of another artist’s images, as presented in physical space) to his resume with his photographs of the Fra Angelico frescoes at the elementally sparse Convento di San Marco in Florence (reviewed here).

Polidori follows the Fra Angelico pathway quite a bit further into the distant past in his newest works. Still in Italy, Polidori has moved south to Pompeii and spent time in various ancient villas decorated with elaborate frescoes and wall paintings dating from 70-60 BC, some having been recently restored. His pictures carefully isolate, reframe, and generally celebrate portions of these colorful frescoes, situating them in the context of particular walls, rooms, and pass through doorways. Each photograph feels like it starts with the fundamental photographic question of where to put the camera, and continues on to consider what the artist wants to feature and how he wants to re-imagine our experience of those specific surfaces and spaces. Of course, the pictures are “about” the lovely frescoes, but they are also very much about photographic seeing.

The most straightforward to Polidori’s photographs crop our view down to the flatness of a single wall, where he draws our attention to either the painted frescoes or the rough texture of the cracking walls, or both. He tends to arrange his frames with strict attention to the vertical lines of trompe l’oeil that create the appearance of fluted columns, ornately carved frames, supporting posts, and other decorative accents, and within that structure, he then highlights key details. The most unexpectedly clever is the painted version of a small shelf with a small bird pecking away at several figs, which is both lifelike enough to fool us momentarily and an inspired effort to bring nature indoors. Other sections offer us a bountiful basket of figs on a ledge with the appearance of an open window behind, and framed “paintings” (like Narcissus looking at his own reflection) that hover on the painted walls. Polidori is also curious about squaring off our view of interior niches, both painted and real, where fake windows look out on bucolic scenes of sunny skies and green trees. For a photographer interested in the play of space and depth, the visual tricks employed by the fresco painter(s) offer a wide range of opportunities for photographic amplification.

Polidori’s images of Versailles smartly used doorways and framed openings to telescope through the available space, sometimes linking several rooms into one stacked composition. He employs the same technique here with bare rectangular doorways that allow us to see through to additional rooms, the flattening eye of the camera bringing those far away distances forward. Generally, Polidori compositionally sets the doorways to one side or the other, rarely making them the focal center of the picture, but more of a way out for the eye to wander. Since he is stepped back in these scenes, we also get a better view of the mosaic floors, the marbled and floral top and bottom “moldings”, and the rough rock of upper walls that remain uncovered, the surrounding context highlighting the fragility of the frescoes and overall presence they have in the various rooms. Overall, the views are rigorously geometric, but have an embedded escape hatch in the form of the door, which breaks up the strictness of the shapes and reminds us of the physical flow of the space.

Since Polidori is using a large format camera and making long exposures, the details of these frescoes are captured with an abundance of crisp tactile clarity. The flaking of paint, the crumbling and crackling of rock, and even the small brushstrokes of the original painters are visible in Polidori’s close ups, many of which can alternately be read as intricate studies of texture. This has been true of Polidori’s photographs across his career, but these ancient walls definitely lend themselves to Polidori’s meticulous attention.

Ansel Adams used to say that his negatives were like a musical score that he played when he printed them. As Polidori ages, he seems to be “playing” various physical spaces in the same way, taking their inherent strengths and limits into account and then improvising his own original artistic solutions within those constraints. While his expressiveness often takes the form of methodical control, no one would mistake these pictures as made by someone other than Polidori. He has quietly succeeded in developing his own distinctive visual vocabulary for parsing built spaces, and ingenious frescoes like the ones in these ancient villas have offered him even more opportunities for creative interpretation.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $40000 or $50000, based on size. Polidori’s works are consistently available at auction, with recent prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $70000.

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