Stephen Shore @303

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 color photographs, generally framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the large single room gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made between 2009 and 2013 in Israel and Ukraine, and printed in 2013 or 2014. The works are shown in two sizes: 16×20 (in editions of 8) and 36×45 (also in editions of 8). A monograph of the Israel work was recently published by Phaidon (here, and reviewed here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Based on his criss-crossing roadtrip output from the 1970s, Stephen Shore long ago cemented his rightful place in the pantheon of great American photographers. Whether it was the immediate ordinariness of American Surfaces or the more precise and deliberate vernacular landscapes of Uncommon Places, his photographs were deeply rooted in the American experience, in an observant examination of what everyday life in towns and cities across this country really felt like.

This quintessential “Americanness” is what makes Shore’s show of new work so perplexing; we’ve collectively invested so much time and energy into his controlled vision of America that it’s hard to follow him to Israel and Ukraine without feeling a kind of visual jet lag. Unlike countless other photographers who have traveled to far off lands and placed their artistic imprint on the local vistas, there’s something about Shore’s international jaunts that feels overly forced. Part of this unease comes from the fact that he’s chosen two hotbeds of political and historical controversy, freighting his new pictures with a layer of emotional background that has been entirely absent from his previous work. These just don’t seem like places where we should find Stephen Shore, even as a tourist.

Of the two bodies of work on view in this show, Shore’s photographs from Ukraine are vastly more successful, and more reminiscent of the best of Shore’s earlier work. Tracing the lives of Holocaust survivors through the towns and villages of the Ukrainian countryside, his pictures exhibit the kind of formal compositional control that can take your breath away. Fallen apples settle into a rut on a rooftop, rotting amid the radiating lines of the sheeting. A squared off look through French doors in a dated pink hotel room tightly frames a blue couch in the next room. And a wide street view with a lone pedestrian is interrupted by the angle of a thin wire that slashes across the sky. Shore’s found still lifes and tabletops are equally precise: an isolated old style rotary telephone, a box of apples and a jackknife, a plastic radio, an array of wartime medals on a patterned carpet, a clock in the shape of wristwatch, they all provide subtle details about both the past and the present. Whether they come in the form the geometries of a blue ceiling, the blocked colors of a muddy doorstep, or the proud pose of an elderly man wearing his many medals, Shore’s attentive and well-ordered observations feel clear and elegant, each a paring down of reality into a resonant central idea.

Unfortunately, these many positives are largely absent from Shore’s Israeli work. Aside from a signature half eaten meal (this time hummus and beans), it’s difficult to find Shore in these pictures; it’s as if he’s been entirely frustrated by the bright sun, the harsh desert, and the tense cities. While a few of the far off landscapes are well-constructed (an abandoned car in a wash of sand, an endless vista of houses and satellite dishes, a monastery carved into the dusty hills), they exhibit none of Shore’s ability to get inside a culture and perceptively see its details – juxtapositions of Orthodox Jews and trendy fashion advertisements are just too easy. Virtually none of these photographs could be easily identified as being made by Shore, and most are quite a bit less than durably memorable.

The inconsistency displayed in this show feels mostly like a need for more ruthless editing than any fall off in Shore’s craft. Chop away all of the Israeli pictures as a tough project that ultimately didn’t bear much insightful artistic fruit and thin out the Ukraine images by roughly a third and suddenly this show would be a punch after punch knockout. As it’s hung however, it’s a mixed bag, with real flashes of brilliance dimmed by a few too many forgettable neighbors.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced based on size. The 16×20 prints are $12000 each and the 36×45 prints are $35000 each. Shore’s color work (vintage and later prints) is routinely available at auction, generally ranging in price between roughly $1000 and $35000.

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Read more about: Stephen Shore, 303 Gallery, Phaidon Press

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