JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of three connected spaces and the entry area. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made in 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 31×24 to 72×48 (or reverse), and all of the images are available in editions of 5+2AP. A thin catalog of the show is available from the gallery. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The title of Roe Ethridge’s new body of work is “American Spirit”, and given the often toxic nature of our current national discourse, those two words take on a biting, tongue-in-cheek edge here that feels remarkably timely. In a world awash in half truths, alternate facts, and fake news, the straight-backed optimistic cliches of American patriotism and homespun values have been undermined of late by a persistent strain of dark, wearying cynicism – we’re just not able to believe in our old symbols with the same level of doe-eyed innocence and healthy enthusiasm we once embodied. If anything, our “American Spirit” is now a much more elusive and malleable concept, one that now mixes flag waving and pie baking with a caustic undercurrent of irony and skeptical disbelief.
Roe Ethridge is in many ways a perfect artist for this particularly destabilized moment. In the past decade, he has repeatedly upended the foundations of photography, using the slick motifs of commercial imagery and the visual artifacts of the digital world to deliberately blur the previously crisp border lines around the sanctified medium. His pictures have often pushed us into the uncomfortable space of not being sure about what exactly to believe, that off-kilter dissonance leaving us with a few too many lingering unresolved questions to walk away entirely happy. A half dozen years ago, that shifting in-betweenness felt mannered and purposefully awkward at times, but now that same subtly suspicious conceptual mood feels remarkably apt.
Ethridge’s new pictures surgically unravel a wide selection of classic American symbols, from snowy mountain vistas and college football to crisp apples and the Cookie Monster, each image allowed to slide to the tipping point where straightforward starts to jitter just a bit. Especially when we let our cynical mindset loose, the studied perfection of his rugged mountains feels cloyingly ironic and almost ridiculous and even the lovable Sesame Street muppet has an odd sense of jangling eeriness.
Ethridge uses the repeated motifs of American Spirit cigarettes and red roses to tie the works on view into a coherent whole. Roses decorate a homey front garden suburban scene, act as a backdrop for a fashion shoot, and lie across a vintage Rose Bowl program, but in each supposedly wholesome case, the images offer subtle traces of something unsettled. The warmly lit front window turns out to be a painted Chinese backdrop (with black characters near the tree line and a horror film “don’t go in there” silent menace), the fashion model (in her puffy shouldered blouse) smiles with a trace of awkwardness, and the flower across the program intrudes at a scale that is slightly too large. When the cigarettes are included, the symbolic harshness turns up a notch. The crisp apple still life with almonds is allowed to age a bit, the apples turning brown at the edges while the intermingled cigarettes undermine the healthy commercial mood. And a second still life combines the roses and American Spirit boxes into a gleefully poisonous swirl, the blooms tinted a sickly blue green and the whole scene dissolving into layers of crinkled pink plastic and digital transparency.
Ethridge also uses blurred pixelization as a method for destabilizing his images of American icons. Clip art basketballs float in a sea of uniformly flat green, posing as a dissolving digital foil for the other football-themed images nearby. Even better is the artist’s take on Jasper Johns’ White Flag. The thickly textured, monochrome version of the stars and stripes is already drained of much of its typical patriotic verve, but Ethridge’s added layer of pixelization doubles that recharacterization, turning the whitewashed symbol into something even more inconclusive and wryly empty.
The other works in this show take Ethridge somewhere entirely new, using the American Spirit theme as a connecting bridge. Starting with the unfolded forms of cigarette boxes as base layer templates, he has built up dizzying digitally collaged agglomerations of transparent imagery drawn from both his own archives and the vastness of the Internet. Entitled Pic n’ Clips (apparently after the contents of his mother’s crowded coupon drawer), the works tackle one of contemporary art’s most stubborn challenges – how to visually (and metaphorically) represent the cacophonous distraction of our current image-saturated existence.
While too many artists to name have already broken their picks on this problem, using overlapped software windowing, digital mark making, random image intermingling, and stuttering visual vocabularies with varying degrees of success, Ethridge’s approach feels surprisingly well integrated, like stream of consciousness scrapbooking with a personal touch. Scavenged images jostle for attention – fashion outtakes wrestle with surf reports, Ewoks lead to Thanksgiving dinner, football players tangle with handbags, and family photos cohabitate with weirdo digital renderings and squiggles – and yet this jumping eye-dance feels strangely comfortable. The fact that we’re already used to this kind of interleaved connection making is important – it allows Ethridge to leverage his compositional technique into both self-portrait like gatherings of seemingly tangential imagery as well as fully ironic mergings of facets of Americana that are worthy of reconsideration and/or mockery. Even Larry Gagosian gets a star turn in one of the works, lovingly located right on top of the Surgeon General’s cancer warning from the cigarette box underneath.
Ethridge’s whole show has the lingering, unplaceable feeling of infection or contamination – everything is just one click off center, each picture slightly tweaked to the point that the fragile house of cards seems ready to tumble. It is this sophisticated manifestation of our inherent doubt that makes these pictures so consistently excellent. Ethridge has found the pressure points of unstable artificiality in our contemporary culture, and this knockout show finds him pushing harder and harder on those vulnerable weak spots.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $14000 and $28000, based on size. Ethridge’s work is becoming more consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between $5000 and $34000.