Shannon Ebner, STRAY @Eva Presenhuber

JTF (just the facts): Of the ten pieces in the show, nine comprise one or more black-and-white archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum arranged on white walls on the gallery’s two floors; the tenth is an installation consisting of two black-and-white archival pigment prints mounted on aluminum, an LP featuring poets Susan Howe and Nathaniel Mackay reading selections from their work, and a turntable system on which visitors may play the LP. (Anyone purchasing the installation must supply his or her own turntable and speakers.) Individual prints range in size from roughly 5×7 inches to 72×76 inches (one image printed in two sections). All of the works were made in 2017 and are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: “It is possible,” Shannon Ebner writes in the poster/pamphlet that accompanies this excellent exhibition, “that one of my first strays, apart from being gay, was to stray from photography.” Here she alludes to a time in the 1990s when, for a few years, while living in New York, she identified more as a poet than an artist.

Stray, the central piece in the show, represents a return of sorts to this moment in Ebner’s life. On a turntable provided by the gallery, adventurous visitors can play an LP of Susan Howe and Nathaniel Mackey—two poets that Ebner admires—reading from their work. Excerpts of these poems, printed out as posters, wheat-pasted onto city walls, and then re-photographed by the artist, hang on either side of the stereo.

With this installation, Ebner adds a new layer—sound—to her already multilayered output, which since the 2000s has combined pictures and both symbolic and written language in often unexpected ways. She’s particularly enamored of commas, strike marks, and ampersands, and for a while had an obsession with asterisks (they “indicate that there is more information elsewhere.”). She’s presented a whole show of photographs of “A”s as they appeared in found signage; made her own alphabet from cinderblocks arranged in the shapes of letters; and built installations of giant cardboard letters and words—to be photographed and then dismantled—in the interstitial wastelands of Los Angeles. The topography of that city, where Ebner has lived since 2000, is an outsized character in her work—she’s even written a long poem to viewers using one of the solar LED signs—usually used for short, urgent messages—ubiquitous on freeways.

Ebner’s use of text and signage is indebted both to Walker Evans (an homage to Evan’s 1938 book American Photographs hangs to the left of the gallery’s front door) and Ed Ruscha. But her approach is both more political—albeit subtly—and more unruly than that of her predecessors. Her connection to Evans comes through most clearly in the largest photograph here, a beautiful and mysterious picture that appears at first to be a perfectly straightforward shot of a street-level store window. A printed sign reading “Photography” runs across a wall with a door in it just behind the glass. Something about the image, however, doesn’t seem quite right. A combination of reflections in the glass and shadows on the wall make it hard to determine the shape and size of the space behind the window; further, a fluorescent fixture at the top of the window appears to exist only as a reflection without an original. The picture’s message is clear: photography (like words) can radically alter our perception of reality.

While this image seems almost like a film set, several other works in the show are filmic in structure—more in the spirit of Duane Michaels than Evans or Ruscha. The simplest of these works, “Will and be Going to,” consists of a pair of photographs of a jury-rigged sign with the titular phrase written on it. The two shots are nearly identical, except that in one of them, a small cloud has shifted slightly within the frame. Time has passed, just as the signs predicted. In a more extended narrative, seven sequential pictures of a man delivering a package to Friends in Deed House, a helping organization in Pasadena, flank and overlap a larger photograph of the place’s door swinging shut.

Ebner’s work can be cool, and—in the case of her cinderblock alphabet—even severe. Friends In Deed House, however, seems to signal a shift toward greater emotional resonance, as do pieces like a small portrait of Grace Dunham (the out sister of Lena), and a pair of photographs of trees reminiscent of those by Ebner’s contemporary, Zoe Leonard.

In a transactional age, honoring caring and connection seems an act of resistance, a recurring preoccupation for the artist, who also resists any categorization of her art. Resistance is most touchingly depicted here in a photograph of an arrangement set up by an anonymous person high on the hills overlooking L.A. A tall arrangement of sticks and cloth, it’s a defiant affirmation of its maker’s existence—a protest against invisibility. Resistance is also baked in to Bombardo, an insult in Cotton Mather’s 1702 history Magnalia Christi Americana found by Emily Dickinson and rediscovered by Howe, that Ebner has printed as a poster and then re-photographed. In its entirety, it reads “Bombardo-Gladio-Fun-Hasti-Flammi-Loquentes,” which translates as “Breathing, bombs, swords, death, spears, and flames.”

It’s tempting to relate this group of works to our current political landscape, in which, to quote Charles M. Blow in the New York Times, “America is suffering under the tyranny of gibberish.” Near the front door, a shelf of books on which Ebner has collaborated with designers and publishers is well worth looking through. They make a fitting conclusion to a show celebrating the power of considered words and images.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $3000 (for the smallest individual print) and $40000 (for an eight-part piece). Ebner’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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