Tatum Shaw, Plusgood!

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Aint-Bad (here). Softcover, 8.25×10.75 inches, 96 pages, with 42 color reproductions. Aside from a few text fragments, there are no essays included. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A handful of throwback vintage photographs are interspersed through Tatum Shaw’s photobook Plusgood! – they show us a swimming pool, a young woman in a white dress and long white gloves, a boy flying upside down through the air, another swinging a golf club, and an older woman smiling for the camera with a dollop of puffed up hair. Small clues throughout the photobook lead us to the potential conclusion that the boy in the photographs is likely the artist himself, the woman is his grandmother, and the pool is at her house, but what’s important about these pictures isn’t so much their content as that they are printed off-register, with the red, blue, and yellow layers jarringly misaligned. The pictures shimmer and dissolve, seeming to say that while we may have indelible memories of the people and places in our lives, the passage of time is likely knocking them off kilter in unexpectedly strange ways.

Plusgood! is rooted in a stylized aura of fond nostalgia – for childhood, for easy going fun, for games, for family, and even for white bread, cigarettes, and dated print advertising. All of these themes (and others) weave through the photobook as repeated visual motifs, tying the pictures together into one atmospheric flow. Shaw has essentially placed us down in the backyard near his grandmother’s pool, where the fun ensues, and while the overt mood is wholeheartedly upbeat, his photographs consistently linger on the edge of uneasy dissonance, the happy moments tinged with an undercurrent of surreal bite.

Shaw’s hyper real, color saturated aesthetics liberally draw from the look and feel of commercial photography. Following in the footsteps of artists like Roe Ethridge and Torbjørn Rødland, Shaw constantly wrong foots us, appropriating and undermining that familiar commercial style and then deliberately mixing the real and the artificial, introducing uneasy situations and dreamlike psychologies that feel out of place at an ordinary family pool party.

The central motif in Plusgood! is a mundane loaf of Sunbeam white bread. Wrapped in yellow plastic and adorned with the face of a young girl (“Little Miss Sunbeam”), the bread acts like a time machine, bringing Shaw back to his childhood. The bread appears multiple times throughout the photobook, like a comforting musical refrain. We see a young girl eating a slice, a bagged loaf flying through the air over the swimming pool, a playfully smoking sandwich (made with dry ice) sitting on the grass, and a half empty bag of old fashioned bread tossed on a golden table in the afternoon sun. Shaw then twists the motif toward the surreal, making a pair of fake Sunbeam ads, where the young girl lies face down amid a field of white slices and a woman has a bite of bread while smoking a cigarette, each set against the bright yellow and red graphic design of the brand. And then he goes yet another step further, into the realm of the strangely uncomfortable, with a child wearing a surprisingly spooky Little Miss Sunbeam paper mask (which creepily looks like the vintage photograph of the grandmother that follows), and a boy hiding a huge knife behind his back while carrying another bag of bread. The progression twists the symbolic safety of the homey bread back on itself with knowing glee.

Shaw takes an alternate approach with other resonant objects from his past, building up formal still life arrangements that take full advantage of clean commercial aesthetics. In images reminiscent of the works of Paul Outerbridge and early Irving Penn, Shaw keys in on vibrant saturated color, using a light blue backdrop to set off bright yellow lemons, a green ping pong paddle, and a set of red, yellow, and blue croquet balls. He mixes these with a magnolia blossom, packs of Kent cigarettes and a Kent ashtray, a carved wooden elephant, and a cut crystal tumbler of whiskey, creating layered groups of objects that convincingly echo the look of the past, but feel knowing and modern. The results are both dated and wryly sentimental, the cigarettes and whiskey taking the edge off of too much timeless family fun.

When Shaw brings people into his photographs, the unspoken emotions get turned up several notches, pushing into the realm of the oddly exaggerated. A pregnant woman rests in the grass and again in a deck chair, her nudity and ecstatic expression giving a provocative edge to her carefree relaxation. Another woman enjoys the rainbow of sunlight cast across her eyes with blissful euphoria, and a life-of-the-party laughing man mugs with a peeled orange. These surreal amplifications of joy are then balanced by images that operate in more ominous registers: the sweaty face of a woman lies on the floor interrupted by an encroaching vine; another woman with tousled hair looks confused or disturbed; a boy puts the handle of a toy gun in his mouth; a determined girl is lit from below by an inexplicable glow; and a man appears to get choked on a baptism billboard. The effect of these various images is to put us on edge, providing more than a few cracks in the facade of easy going summertime fun.

This uneasiness is then reinforced by a few images that bring many of the previous themes together, combining the formality of the still lifes with the subtle theatricality of the portraits. In one image, a woman’s hand holds a cigarette and a dangling cherry over the skin of her bent knee with suggestive languor, while in another, a silver tray lies across a woman’s lap, carrying a phallic cut cucumber and some lipstick-marked cigarette butts. Shaw then undercuts the implied sultriness with images of smashed eggs dotted by flies (and an incongruent smiley face sticker) and a jumble of fallen oranges in the dirt, tugging us back and forth between attraction and repulsion.

Given the many references to magazine ads in Plusgood!, its glossy design feels well matched to the visual content. While the photobook has a stitched binding, it has the feel and heft of a magazine, with slick pages and images mostly printed out to the edges. The mis-registered vintage images are printed smaller, but for the most part, Shaw’s photographs fill out the pages, with verticals seen on one side of a spread and horizontals running across the entire width. Seen as an integrated object, it’s clear that Shaw has deliberately continued the appropriation of the commercial aesthetic within the construction of his photobook.

While Shaw’s stylized aesthetic is one that we are seeing more and more of in contemporary photography, he has successfully made it his own in Plusgood! by rooting it in his own family memories and then extrapolating those real emotions out to various extremes. By layering related image types and weaving common motifs through the photographs, Shaw delivers a photobook that feels tightly nested and interlocked, each picture connecting into the charged emotional fabric that runs throughout. Summer at Shaw’s grandmother’s house pulses with an undercurrent of friction, giving Plusgood! a satisfying sense of agitation and excitement.

Collector’s POV: Tatum Shaw does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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