Roe Ethridge, Old Fruit @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 color photographs, framed in brown/white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space behind the bookstore. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, with most made between 1999 and 2003 (outliers are from 2010 and 2019). Physical sizes range from roughly 24×24 to 53×43 inches, and all of the prints come in editions of 5+2APs. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a photographer settles into a mature mid-career point where his or her artistic voice (and its influence on the rest of the photography community) has become clearly distinct, two opportunities tend to present themselves. We start to see mid-career museum retrospectives, which try to chart the aggregate path of maturation, and we have the ability to “go back to the beginning” to re-look at early works, our eye now better trained to identify the important patterns that will ultimately emerge.

The arc of Roe Ethridge’s career in photography matches this model quite neatly. His work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2008 and then in MoMA’s New Photography exhibit in 2010 (reviewed here), and he was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize in 2011. More recently, he had his first solo museum exhibit, a mid-career survey at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 2016 (here). This gallery show now returns to his work from the early 2000s, essentially completing the cycle.

The uniqueness of Ethridge’s vision is found in his ability to fluidly move back and forth between previously discrete modes of photography, deftly interchanging commercial assignments and personal projects, fashion shoots and documentary efforts, and the agreed upon motifs of stock imagery and conceptual setups. This deliberate mixing and appropriation of aesthetics is consistently delivered with wry intelligence, his pictures seeming to acknowledge that they have been crafted to elicit a certain response that is dissonant in one manner or another with what we’re expecting. His work was among the first to acknowledge how the circulation of imagery in our world could create confused experiences, and to leverage that doubt and uncertainty with playful incisiveness.

Most of the works on view here come from the early 2000s, as Ethridge’s ideas about stylistic recombination were still in gestation. Three of the images make grandiose images of flying pigeons, turning the dirty scavengers of the city into majestic birds like hawks and falcons. Tossed into the air, they spread their wings and flap them emphatically, with Ethridge’s camera capturing them in mid-flight as though taxidermied. While we’re used to seeing eagles seen with this kind of iconic reverence, Ethridge upends that avian hierarchy, giving those on the bottom rung the royal treatment.

In other works, Ethridge deconstructs the usual boundaries of the still life genre. He makes a discarded satin bow into a gloriously shiny study of pink, its highlights swirling with painterly detail. He puts a standard roll of white paper towels into the central position in a kitchen counter arrangement. And he rethinks the classic bowl of fruit still life by enlarging it to oversized proportions and allowing the fruit to turn moldy, exaggerating the push and pull of attraction and repulsion.

Ethridge similarly muddies the usual rules of documentation. An image of an ambulance accident is given a patina of hyper-reality, making it look more like a staged Jeff Wall tableax than a car crash. And on an editorial assignment to make images of “vernacular decor,” he photographed his parents’ refrigerator, complete with his own childhood picture, thereby giving a personal subject a commercial feel.

And when Ethridge considers faces, he brings the interplay of fashion motifs into the mix. One model takes on the stylized look of a mannequin, while a young man with long hair and a dripping bloody nose is given the attentive treatment of a glamour shoot. In both cases, Ethridge tweaks our expectations, forcing us to look again and acknowledge our visual assumptions.

In the intervening years since these photographs were made, Ethridge’s images have become increasingly layered and sophisticated, with nuance and provocation tussling with even more energy. In gallery shows in 2011 (reviewed here), 2014 (reviewed here), and 2017 (reviewed here), we can follow along as he pushes further and further on established visual genres and styles. With that context in mind, these earlier works feel more exploratory, with Ethridge testing out ideas that are deliberately aesthetically combative, as if to see what might happen. For those that like to follow the bread crumbs of an artist’s development, this show offers that time capsule first look at promising rough beginnings that would gradually evolve into durable innovation.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show, many of which are APs, are priced between $20000 and $30000. Ethridge’s work is becoming more somewhat available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between $5000 and $34000.

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