Steve Kahn, The Hollywood Suites @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 black and white photographic works, framed in white/silver and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. 26 of the works consist of gelatin silver prints, from single images to sets of 4, made between 1974 and 1978. The individual prints/panels are sized between roughly 6×8 to 14×19 (or reverse), and the works are available in editions of 3 (for the multi-image works) or 15 (for the single images). The other 3 works on view consist of Polaroid prints, in sets of 3 and 12, made in 1976. In this case, the individual prints/panels are sized roughly 3×4 inches (or reverse), and the works are unique. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2014 by Nazraeli Press (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The late 1960s and early 1970s were a particularly exciting time for photography in and around Los Angeles. Ed Ruscha was photographing the Sunset Strip and making conceptual photobooks out of parking lots, gas stations, and palm trees. John Baldessari was at CalArts (which opened in 1970), bringing a conceptual braininess to questions of multi-image seriality and narrative, tossing balls, choosing carrots, and hitting things with a golf club. Robert Heinecken established the photography program at UCLA in 1964, and was busy experimenting with process, exploring the nature of media juxtapositions, pornography, and social roles. And Lewis Baltz was hanging around the industrial parks of Irvine, making deadpan studies of the sparse geometries of warehouses, offices, and other commercial architecture. With the work of these artists and others as primary evidence, and without making too much of a sweeping generalization, an active determination to test the boundaries of the medium was certainly percolating around in the Southern California air during that time.

Steve Kahn’s contributions to this swirl of artistic thinking are perhaps less well known than those of some of his contemporaries, but this show of The Hollywood Suites smartly brings his work from the mid-1970s back into the conversation. The project began in 1974 with Kahn renting rooms-by-the-day in an old tenement building and posing professional bondage models in the sparsely furnished or empty spaces. While this might sound like a setup for some highly provocative imagery, Kahn’s flash-lit nudes are muted and conceptual, with young women in panties captured in singular poses – being pulled by plastic wrap, doing headstands, crouching on top of bureaus bound by a single strand of tape, or letting their high-heeled shoes become symbolic stand-ins. The images of anonymous bodies in the controlled space of these rooms go beyond the dominance tropes of bondage or a stylized version of alienation to something more muted and formal, like carefully staged spatial experiments. Shooting with Polaroid film and ultimately copying the images into gelatin silver, the pictures are filled with tactile grain, the textural grittiness of the process matching the grubbiness of the walls.

On the days that the models didn’t show up, Kahn was left to photograph the empty rooms, which turned out to be even more intriguing. While he tried out a few multi-frame motion studies of time-lapse running, with bodies being sliced into component parts and acting out various poses with the door, it soon became clear that the clean lines of the room itself were actually engaging visual actors in and of themselves.

Kahn’s first response was to reprise the bondage idea, but by applying the rope and tape to the doors of the empty rooms instead of the now-absent models. Closed doors are taped shut with criss cross Xs over the hinges and seams or tied up via rope pulled between hinges and doorknobs. Open doors yawn like like deep black voids, their strict rectangular forms interrupted by twine and rope that stitch across the openings to create geometric patterns and intrusive barriers. In each case, the intervention feels like an attempt at control, actively preventing us from using the doors as they were meant to be used; the lines simultaneously have a rigorous formal elegance, as they interrupt the geometries of the rooms.

Kahn then moved on to looking at the walls, floors, and ceilings more closely, creating multi-image triptychs and quadrants that sliced the rooms into component parts. Between the flattening eye of the camera and the high contrast black and white of the surfaces, the rooms are reduced into planar forms, almost Minimalist in their spare simplicity. Sharp-edged corners and angled lines become the subject of these dark/light arrangements, the divisions into individual frames adding to the constructed nature of the compositions.

Windows and mirrors proved to be equally compelling. Kahn’s window studies are deadpan views of the frame and curtains, the outside world invariably washed to white or interrupted by flash reflection. This pushes our attention to the formal qualities of the tired drapes that surround the glass, their patterns and tie backs echoed by folds that contrast with the blankness of the surrounding white walls. Similarly, Kahn’s mirrors are never what they seem – they reflect perfect whiteness, blackness, or scraped surfaces, without ever showing us anything. They are like empty frames, or portals, or tombstones hanging on the dreary walls. And the last works in the project finally let us out of these rooms, pairing images of the blank walls with views of rumbling storm clouds (perhaps taken from the windows). Shown as diptychs, the storm/wall combinations are both texture studies of clouds and grime, as well as interior/exterior dichotomies, where reductive control meets the expansiveness of nature.

The starkness of Kahn’s pictures gives each step in this progression a sense of heightened tension. We might assume that empty room studies would lead to bland or forgettable pictures, but The Hollywood Suites are full of implied uneasiness, and this taut anxiety creates suspense. Kahn brings apprehension to the muteness of rigorous conceptual thinking, and this understated almost film noir disquiet is what makes these works durably memorable.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $3500 and $12500, based on size and number of prints in the set. Kahn’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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