Shannon Ebner, FRET SCAPES @Kauffman Repetto

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum, made between 2019 and 2022. Physical sizes are roughly 12×8, 11×15, 17×14, 22×15, 22×17, or 19×66 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP.

The show also includes a large installation of archival pigment prints on Photo Tex, made in 2022. The work consists of 17 compositions, with overall dimensions of 116×237 inches.

(Installation and individual letter composition images below.)

Comments/Context: Shannon Ebner’s consistent interest in words and letters sets her apart from most contemporary photographers. Across several decades of thoughtful work, she has methodically investigated the aesthetics of printed language, built up her own letter forms and alphabets from a range of found materials (including cinder blocks and electric road signs), constructed poems and cryptic texts from these various shapes and representations, and made photographs out in the streets that capture the nuanced complexity of everyday language in use. With each passing gallery show (as seen in 2017, reviewed here, and 2013, reviewed here), Ebner seems to discover unexpected new ways to de-construct and re-construct words and letters, constantly re-imagining both their graphic qualities and their potential for communication.

The main installation in her newest show uses the individual letters from her 2019 “WET LETTER” alphabet as building blocks for a new set of poetic phrases and compositions. Each fragile paper letter (roughly the size of hand) was pasted inside the wall of a building with water and then individually photographed. In addition to the challenge of pasting the wet papers on the wall without introducing too many wrinkles, tears, or other dislocations, the letters would then dry, peel back, and ultimately tumble off the wall quite quickly, making the photography process more frantic. A quick survey of this resulting “WET LETTER” alphabet finds a hand holding up the V, a bent N, a shadowed C, and a blurred &, among other textural and visual imperfections that give the photographic font its distinctive life and personality.

Ebner has used this alphabet to compose “FRET”, a series of seventeen poetic compositions that have been installed as one integrated artwork. FRET is an acronym for the Forecast Reference Evapotranspiration Report, which is apparently a technical report generated by climate scientists that measures the rate at which water that falls to the ground will then evaporate back up into the sky. This, of course, ties neatly back into the practical evaporation issues surrounding the creation of the “WET LETTER” alphabet. Ebner’s smaller component poems mix weather terminology and social constructs, seeing patterns in the cycle of precipitation and drying. Some use words in poetic phrasings, while others break up into repetitions of syllables and component words, building them into more graphic arrangements of individual letter forms and deliberate changes in symbols and spacing. The result is an allusive and almost metronomic voice, constructed from a unique component alphabet, that takes resonant physical form on the walls of the gallery.

The rest of the show consists of modestly sized black-and-white photographs, seemingly drawn from the nearby streets of the city. In subject matter and vantage point, they are loosely tied together by their possibilities for communication, where words, numbers, and symbols found in passing storefronts and other urban spaces offer mysterious semi-legible messages. What are the hand prints behind the door tellings us – are they proof of presence, like cave paintings, or some other ordered password? Is the bulbous gathering of snow on a wall between two parked cars resolving into something recognizable, like a shifting cloud? And were the ink stamps on the wall simply random, or arranged to suggest a stylized face? These are the tantalizing unknowns of the streets, where messages come and go, both recognized and unrecognized.

Ebner similarly finds interest in layered and reflected shop windows, where letters and numbers are intermingled and distorted. In one work, she and her camera are reflected in the multi-lingual messages of opening and closing times, with drips of white paint threatening to intervene. In another, an array of broken iPhones and iPads seems to want to tell us something, but the blank screens feel ominously dark and hollow. And in a third, an American flag peeks out from a veiled circular window, the bold arc above the window making it resemble an eye. Ebner is acutely attuned to these vague codes and communications, seeing signal in the overlooked visual noise.

As a leading practitioner of something we might define as photographic linguistics, it feels like Ebner could be doing more to explore the structures and patterns to be found in how image-making and language interact. This isn’t so much a criticism of what she’s done to date, but a nagging sense that there is much more to be examined, especially as words and vocabularies take different visual forms in the digital realm. She’s diligently carved out an intriguing and differentiated artistic space for herself, but I’d like to see her push harder and go farther than this show offers, as out on the proverbial edges is where the more radical discoveries may lie.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show range in price from $7000 to $14000, based on size. Ebner’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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