JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 large scale color photographs and 1 large scale color diptych, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the office area. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made between 2014 and 2019. Physical sizes range from roughly 32×24 to 72×48 inches, and all of the works are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: If we take as a hypothesis that art making is often rooted in an incremental progression of problem solving, with insights and successes slowly building upon each other over time, than it would make sense to see patterns of innovation followed by consolidation in an artist’s career, where a period of fresh new ideas naturally leads to another where those artistic insights are more systematically understood and evolved.
Given the breadth of work on display in this new show, Roe Ethridge has clearly been busy in the past few years, balancing a steady stream of fashion and other commercial commissions with studio still life efforts and more casual shooting out in the world around him. But unlike his last gallery show (in 2017, reviewed here), which featured both a strong thematic through-line and a flash of formal invention, this new exhibit finds him experimenting on a more modest scale, in a sense retrenching rather than pushing outward.
In the past decade, the best of Ethridge’s photographs have consistently thrust us into a place of subtle dissonance, where our assumptions about how commercial imagery is supposed to look and behave are incisively upended. And when Ethridge then applies those same visual conventions to works we might consider documentary or conceptual, we are once again smartly wrong-footed, albeit in the opposite direction. In this way, he gets us both coming and going, and that sense of turmoil reorients our artistic vision, making our foundation systems for assessing artificiality and truth compellingly unstable.
Perhaps the most obviously fake image in this show is a staged scene where soap opera star Susan Lucci stabs Derek Chadwick in the chest with a kitchen knife. Shot for Balenciaga for CR Fashion Book, the surreal red-tinted moment has a camp-sense of mischievous payback – we’re all in on the joke, but it’s still glamorously fun. Other fashion images like Football for Telfar are less obvious. It’s clear the subjects in this image have been styled and arranged carefully, but a hint of snapshot aesthetic gives the picture a bit of friction. Oslo Grace at Willets Point smartly pushes this clash of styles several steps further. The transgender model happily poses in an ensemble of pink, but the staged setup with a pile of fruit and a glass of wine is then placed in the muddy tow lot outside Citi Field, forcing us to reconcile the jaunty smiling face with the dirty puddles and the parked cars. It’s one of the strongest images in the show, the jarring juxtaposition of fantasy and reality settling right into the vein of visual conflict Ethridge likes to mine.
When Ethridge turns to the still life genre, he’s equally aware of his references and stylistic inversions. He adds warm light and familiar homey textures to a pair of images of Raggedy Ann and Andy canisters, overtly pulling on our strings of nostalgia. Plenty paper towels march across a shelf in another image, the glare off the green wall above the parade disrupting the perfection of the product setup. An image of a Warhol-esqe Heinz tomato ketchup bottle also seems to be steeped in commercial clarity, that is until we recognize that the half empty vessel is sitting inside a refrigerator with some loose spears of Dutch still life-ready white asparagus nearby. And Ethridge’s image of a dirty tennis ball, fallen flower petals, and a wet cigarette butt cleverly undermines the typical perfected loveliness we might expect from a commercial shoot, and then gives us a winking homage to Irving Penn’s exacting photographic still lifes via the brand on the ball.
All of this comes together as a selection of solid Ethridge images that keep us off balance, and a supporting handful of secondary works that aren’t quite as durably compelling. When Ethridge finds the nerve, his photographs sizzle with questionable sincerity, never quite allowing us to take what he’s shown us at face value. His image of the school bus on a snowy New York day that opens the show sets up this dilemma – we can’t quite tell if his nostalgia is real or feigned, and that uncertainty prevents easy understanding. By deliberately undermining our visual shorthand, he’s required us to look harder.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $14000 and $35000, based on size. Ethridge’s work is becoming more somewhat available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between $5000 and $34000.