Tim Maul, When Walls Become Pictures @Leslie Tonkonow

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 photographic works, in black-and-white and color, dated between 1974 and 2011, and exhibited against four white walls of the gallery. Most of the prints are matted; others are flush to the edge of the frames, which are either white or black. Thirty-four are unique; the other 6 are in editions of 2 or 3. Physical sizes range between roughly 3×5 (unframed) and 29×20 inches (framed).

The breakdown is as follows:

  • 1 set of 4 vintage gelatin silver prints (1974)
  • 1 set of 2 type-C-prints (2011)
  • 15 vintage type-C prints, most mounted on museum board (1981, 1981-1986, 1985, 1986)
  • 17 vintage Cibachrome prints, some mounted on board (late 1980s, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2003)
  • 4 Cibachrome prints (1989-2003, 1992, 1994)
  • 1 set of 3 Cibachrome prints mounted on panel (1997-2001)
  • 1 set of 7 framed type-C prints (1990)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The gentle melancholia suffusing Tim Maul’s show, his third at Tonkonow, emanates from several sources.

One of these—at least in this selection—is his fondness for dim amber lighting, complemented by the gallery’s own low-watt ambiance. Whereas other photographers and cinematographers wait for the “golden hour” in order to to bathe a scene in a transforming effulgent glow, Maul uses it to convey entropy and expectation. When indoors at his childhood home in Connecticut, and especially during stays in European hotel rooms, he is alert to that time of afternoon when a single electric bulb on the wall, or fading sunlight through translucent curtains, forecasts the chill of darkness and the alternative life of the night. (Wallpaper Paris, 1990; Castle Hotel, Dublin (Dusk), 1992; Hotel Palais, Bruxelles, 1998).

A preference for twilight illumination is coupled to a stubborn modesty about—or diminished ambitions for—photography itself, a belief that one or even a few pictures can never encompass the bigger picture. And so whatever hope exists of truthfully describing any piece of the world lies in narrowing one’s focus, and in attentive waiting. No moment is decisive because all of them are, at least potentially.

The scale of the prints here is another signifier of wry wistfulness. After the 1980s, when many art photographers were super-sizing to fill vast gallery spaces, Maul kept things small. At times he acknowledges that such an attitude may not be commercial or heroic. Monument to the Third International (1993) takes its title from Tatlin’s iconic helical tower, a 1919-20 monument (never built) to the optimism of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Maul’s version is a photograph of a branching shirt rack in the corner of a house.

While in transit from New York, his palette brightens—Grand Central, 1986; Stamford Station, 2003—even as his sensibility remains proudly minimalist and banal. Amtrak NYC/Montreal (1990) is a portrait of two white disposable antimacassars on the headrests of two train seats. (Maul’s sense of humor reminds me of Richard Tuttle’s, both artists wondering how little they can do to make a composition without its being dismissed as abject laziness.)

Maul became a photographer in the late ‘70s without abiding by the usual rules and allegiances of the time. Trained as a painter, graduating from SVA in 1973, he has mostly steered clear of human interactions in the street and elaborate rigs of lights and sets of props inside the studio, demonstrating more of an affinity with the ephemeral aesthetics of performance and Arte Povera. (The enigmatic Shelf Project, a suite of four tiny pictures showing ordinary stuff on a plank of wood, is a good indicator of what he was up to in 1974.)

‘I valued the habitual over the spontaneous, the removed over the engaged, and embraced the touristic, even in my own environment,” he told Tonkonow in a 1992 interview.

He has always liked to photograph what was close at hand. You never have the sense that he has walked hundreds of miles or jetted to an exotic locale in search of material.

Norwalk (1985) is a photograph of a wall covered in faded crimson wallpaper in a brocade pattern, punctured by a hole. What’s inside isn’t clear—is that a snake or mouse asleep?—until, stepping closer, one sees that it’s only the coiled wires and terminal screws of a light switch with the plate removed. Typically, Maul doesn’t try to make this into a five-alarm psychoanalytic symbol of buried desires in domestic life. His camera simply observes that most of us live every day without being aware of what’s going on behind the walls in our own homes and apartments.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take his longstanding interest in the occult and otherworldliness. Although photography has a tradition of ghost hunters, from Clarence John Laughlin to Corinne Botz, Maul seems too irony-immunized and sophisticated to fall for table-rapping spiritualism.

And yet, his best-known series may be Traces and Presence, shot between 1989-2003 in collaboration with a medium, who guided him to “charged” places around Manhattan. Exhibited at ICP and the Centre Pompidou in the early ‘90s and published as a book in 1999, these photographs of sidewalks and apartment facades have an undeniable eeriness, similar to the 1960s series Empty New York by Duane Michals, which were themselves made under the spell of Atget.

In the one example here from that group of black and white Cibachromes, his hand-held camera has peered from the street into the window of a bistro where the reflected horizontal imprint of what seems to be an enormous head (with glasses and teeth) looms on the wall above the white tablecloth and folded napkins.

Apparently he has not abandoned these investigations. One of his most recent works here is the diptych The Devil’s Half-Acre (2011.) On the right side is a map under cracked glass of the Boyle River and Kilglass Lakes in Ireland where, we are told, “numerous people were deliberately drowned during the Irish War for Independence.” On the left side is a close-up of these waters where, we are also told, a “demonic presence is visible.” (If you can see hobgoblins in the troughs of waves, be my guest.)

Maul is a bookish photographer and has made individual volumes, and shelves of them, a frequent subject of his photographs, treating them as physical objects that have spines, open faces, and insides, and as social beings that age and decay.

The largest piece in the exhibition is the Cibachrome triptych A Terrible Beauty (1997-2001.) The title comes from the poem, “Easter, 1916,” W.B. Yeats’ patriotic salute and lament to the failed Irish Revolution. (The full refrain is “A terrible beauty is born.”)

The novelist Leon Uris and his wife Jill chose the first part of the quote for their 1975 personal history of Ireland. Maul has clinically photographed a discarded library copy of their book in three parts: the blue cover without its dust jacket, and with indented letters for title and author; a black-and-white blank end paper; and the inside of the back cover, which holds the library card from the “Perrot Memorial Library, Old Greenwich, Connecticut.” (The last reader seems to have checked out the book in June, 1986.)

The paradox in Maul’s photographs is that people are usually missing from the frame and yet it is their absence that he is searching for and capturing, however imperfectly. Hotel rooms, train seats, sidewalks, offices, and houses in the country will be occupied by a succession of human beings from the past that he never knew and into the future that he will never meet. Library books aren’t anyone’s property but are passed from hand to hand. It’s likely that many of the readers of that copy of A Terrible Beauty are already dead, just as many of the Irish insurgents were already killed when Yeats wrote about them. And yet there are traces of them that the diligent can still find.

If Maul’s intelligent and contrarian work feels haunted it’s probably by the paintings of Magritte, the writings of Becket, and the films of Resnais. He wields his camera as though it were a tool he doesn’t wholeheartedly trust. He clearly appreciates what photography can do, the glimpses it provides of the phenomenal world. Just don’t arrogantly assume, he mordantly reminds us, that we’re getting the whole story.

Collector’s POV: The works in shis show range in price from $1800 for Cardboard Picture to $10000 for A Terrible Beauty from 1997-2001 (3 large C-prints mounted on panel), with the majority of works between $3000 and $5000 each. Maul’s work has little secondary history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Tim Maul, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

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