Roe Ethridge, American Polychronic @Andrew Kreps and @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space and the office area at Andrew Kreps and in a two room gallery space at Gagosian. The following works are included in the shows:

Andrew Kreps (closes one week earlier, on February 18, 2023)

7 dye sublimation prints on aluminum, 2017-2022, 2019-2022, 2020-2022, 2021-2022, 2022, sized roughly 30×24, 31×24, 32×24, 40×30, 50×40, 40×60, and 48×72 inches, in editions of 5+2AP

Gagosian

12 dye sublimation prints on aluminum, 2013-2022, 2020, 2020-2022, 2022, sized roughly 32×24, 34×30, 44×33, 50×33, 33×50, 51×40, 40×53, 54×41, 56×40, 40×60, 48×72 inches, in editions of 5+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

A retrospective monograph of Ethridge’s work has recently been published by MACK (here). Embossed paperback with folded jacket, 25×27.5 cm, 480 pages. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When a photographer reaches his or her fifties, there is a natural tendency to not only reminisce on the twisting path of an artistic career that now stretches back a few decades, but also to coalesce all of those earlier learnings into the confidence and solidity of a mature style. For Roe Ethridge, this moment of reflection and consolidation has arrived, in the form of a thick retrospective volume titled American Polychronic and a concurrent two venue gallery show of new work.

And while many photographers of his generation have simultaneously worked in both artistic/personal and more commercial/editorial modes along the way, Ethridge is perhaps unique in having developed an aesthetic that knowingly straddles both sides with equal aplomb, freely remixing portions of each to create images that feel both recognizably familiar and undeniably unsettling. He has long understood the power of the visual tropes of fashion photography and the commercial product still life, and he has then appropriated and applied those looks and styles to a range of fresh situations and setups, teasing unexpected dissonance and friction out of the seemingly mundane. That we can never be entirely sure whether an image was made on commission for a client or for his own artistic purposes is perhaps the best proof that Ethridge has smartly tweaked and undermined the usual photographic rules.

In recent years, Ethridge has been busily prolific; in just the past decade or so, in between the steady stream of his commercial and fashion work, he has found time for a handful of solo gallery shows in New York, a spot in the 2010 New Photography exhibit at MoMA, his first retrospective museum survey (in Cincinnati in 2016), and a cluster of photobooks, among other activities. This kind of continuous push can drive an artist’s work forward with increasing momentum, and what emerges from the new pictures in this two venue show is a noticeable sense of consistent sophistication and polish, with nearly every image in both spaces hitting its marks and finding that elusive point of calculated unease. After having methodically worked through his ideas and figured out (and refined) a trusted formula, it feels like Ethridge now has the freedom to push and pull on that malleable aesthetic even further.

Many of the compositions on view here are still lifes, each with its own disruption or unexpected twist on the genre. Setups featuring luxury goods from Tiffany and Chanel are filled with casually undermined glamour, including jewelry strewn across a worn deflated all-American football, silver-plated objects gathered in a reflective jumble (with shiny tin cans and metal bookends mixed in with the fancier money clips and commemorative cups), and perfume bottles set on a mirror surrounded by glorious tulips (only to be overwhelmed by the addition of too many Chanel-logoed tennis balls, a pair of fancy taxidermy roosters, and a surfboard leaning in the background). A similarly lush arrangement at The Chesterfield in Palm Beach brings artful messiness to a bedside table, with the phone off the hook, jewelry tossed here and there, and a pink plastic lighter and a water bottle cap adding to the staged-or-not confusion.

Other still lifes find Ethridge applying this same high brightness attention to more eclectic assortments of objects, some with seemingly more personal attachment. One composition takes a top down look at a red tray filled with collected things (titled “the story of my life up to now”), including a mushroom clock, a plaster cast of a hand (with its broken fingers), a few shells and glass paperweights, and some Reagan-Bush political pins. Another uses a glass fishbowl to house a skull with iridescent slime oozing out of its eyes, with broken eggshells, mushrooms, and other debris strewn around the base. Ethridge then reprises the glass idea a couple of years later using a decanter as the central form, this time holding a swimming betta fish and surrounded by dark gingham patterns and fancy shells. In some cases, he seems to be constructing potential stories and loose associations from these accumulated objects, while in others, the forms, textures, and interactions of the gathered stuff seem like the subjects themselves.

The “polychronic” theme from the title of the book and the shows – that of doing many things at once – feels well matched to Ethridge’s overall ideas and ways of working, especially those in a selection of recent images using dated photographic advertising and gear as compositional elements. In one way, these pictures have a self-referential photography-about-photography echo to them, with the Kodak, Fuji, and Canon brands now brought into Ethridge’s world. But once inside his universe, they are re-imagined in alternate forms – as the equipment of a photo student (and seen with a fashion aesthetic, the camera like a chunky necklace); as the pool float backdrop to a swimsuit shoot (which has then been rephotographed as a torn out ad on a refrigerator door); as an element of a wood paneled interior, complete with a floral bouquets and an endless reflection in a mirror; as an overlay to an image of tulips, with images of Nancy Reagan and happy birthday balloons lost in the texture; and as a horror film castaway prop, the rubber raft surrounded by creeping smoke. There is sly humor and sarcasm in many of these inclusions, making inside jokes about the history and trappings of photographic seeing.

Two other images come at the polychronic motif from another angle, rethinking some the multiple image ideas Ethridge offered with his “pic n’ clips” works from a few years ago. These compositions seem to capture Ethridge mid-thought, his desktop scattered with doubled images waiting to be edited, sorted, or arranged. This visual overload then runs its course, culminating in a picture titled “Just about McFucking had it” which blends a portrait of Ronald McDonald with four close-up images of flowers, the eyes of the clown peering out from the cracks between the images.

But this wry cynicism never quite boils over, but instead is muted by Ethridge’s simpler visual discoveries made out in the world. The conflict of beauty and revulsion (a theme he has explored before in images of rotting fruit) returns with a lovely picture of a moldy peach and another of milk dripped over paving stones and spilled into the gutter, and a splash of unabashed magic makes an appearance in the patterns of light cast through a sprinkler in Palm Beach. So again we are wrong-footed by Ethridge, the layers of conceptual intelligence giving way to something more open and elemental, almost as a corrective for thinking too much instead of just reveling in the process of seeing the world around us.

There is a maturity to these photographs that feels measured and assured, with Ethridge digging into the nuances of ideas he’s interested in rather than flaring and amplifying them for effect, like a younger artist might. Together, these two small shows provide a succinct update on Ethridge’s artistic arc, and an appetizer-sized introduction for those who might eventually turn to the thick new book. What’s exciting is that the recent pictures are evidence of Ethridge gathering his strength, consolidating it, and applying it with intention in multiple directions. There’s hardly a misstep in either of these shows, and plenty of images that will retain their power to keep us off balance for a long time to come. As such, this feels like a moment not so much of arrival but of acknowledgement, where we look to Ethridge as an established and respected force, rather than a brashly disruptive newcomer.

Collector’s POV: The prints in these two shows are priced between $14000 and $35000 based on size. Ethridge’s work has become more available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $35000.

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