JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints on Baryta paper, made between 2013 and 2015. The prints come in three sizes: 18×28 (n editions of 15), 26×40 (in editions of 7), and 40×60 (in editions of 7). There are 10 prints in the medium size and 3 prints in the large size on view. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the past decade, video footage of military drone strikes has become commonplace on television news and in movies, so much so that each time we now see a short clip shot from a drone, its ending has the feeling of inevitability. The story usually begins in grainy black and white, as we hover overhead, the crosshairs locked on some anonymous rectangular building of indeterminate significance, perhaps an army barracks or a weapons depot we are told. After a delay while we patiently watch the scurrying activity below, the frame explodes in a predictable poof of dust, the target destroyed in a roiling fireball of smoke, having been annihilated from afar by a precisely targeted missile launched from a drone high overhead by a soldier with a joystick and a computer terminal. It’s what 21st century warfare looks like, and we’re presented with it routinely on the daily news and in popular culture.
On of the byproducts of seeing so much footage presented in this way is that we have come to associate its visual aesthetic with a presumption of guilt. Even when we are shown video of mistakes and misfires that have taken the lives of innocents and bystanders, there is a sense of inherent judgment that comes with this black and white eye in the sky – what we are being shown below is somehow prohibited, outlawed, evil, or generally on the wrong side of good and bad, and that’s why it has been silently blasted into oblivion.
Tomas van Houtryve’s smart series Blue Sky Days takes this presumptive attitude as its starting point, a stance which it then proceeds to incisively undermine. Using his own aerial drones, he has flown his camera over a variety of places here in the United States (largely in California but elsewhere as well), taking his own black and white footage and stills. Photographically, van Houtryve is of course following in the footsteps of many others over the long history of the medium who have shot images from airplanes and helicopters, or used balloons, kites, and other improvised contraptions to raise cameras high into the air. But what is different here is this overlay of common (some might say propaganda-driven) assumptions about what these images show us – when we apply this implied perspective to his pictures, it gives them a sense of inversion and bite that keeps us off balance.
Van Houtryve’s image “Suspect Behavior” from 2014 lays out this duality with conceptual clarity. In the image, we watch from the air as a group of people do yoga in a San Francisco park, each participant bent forward on his/her knees in a deep stretch – an activity few would conclude to be particularly threatening. When we then read the title of the image, we are effectively asked to look again, and given our media indoctrination, instead potentially see a group of people praying, perhaps leading to the conclusion that this gathering has other motives (cue the radical Islamic terrorism set pieces). That we so quickly oscillate between these two opposing readings of the same picture is a telling indictment of how stereotypes and thumbnails have infiltrated and influenced our usually sophisticated image-assessment capabilities.
Van Houtryve applies this same approach to other seemingly innocuous subjects with similar results, often using eerie cast shadows as seen from above to add a subtle air of threat, menace, and suspicion. In his hands, some kids playing on a baseball field, a birthday party with bubbles, students on a school playground, and a lively wedding party posing for pictures all suddenly have a sense of disquiet, and the artist’s captions draw parallels to recent drone strikes on equivalent targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. The pictures ask hard questions about surveillance and intrusive invasions of privacy, about the relative safety of families and children going about their daily business, and about the double standards we apply to those we have marked as outsiders and foes.
Other images remind us of more plausible military targets, from cadets in formation at a military school to rows of tents in an Arizona jail. An overhead image of a fire truck putting out a car fire seems straightforward enough, until we are reminded by van Houtryve’s caption that drone operators often use “double-tap” strikes, the first round to take out a primary target and the second to take out the first responders who have come to the aid of those in need. An image of a grave digger leads to a story about a drone strike on a funeral and a cluster of back cows in a field connects to a report of a missile aimed at militants in Waziristan that killed nearby livestock instead. Each image is both what it shows and what it implies, both about our policies and activities and about our passive assumptions regarding what actually goes on.
At their best, van Houtryve’s photographs catch us making false conclusions – when we see demons in the shadows and aggressors where none are present, he’s forcefully made his point. His pictures are built on invisible distrust and paranoia, his reversals encouraging our minds to play tricks on us. In the end, this show successfully merges complex of-the-moment political discourse with artistic innovation, a task few have accomplished with as much thoughtful balance and incisive perception.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced in rising editions. The 18×28 prints begin at $2200, the 26×40 prints at $3900, and the 40×60 prints at $6900. Van Houtryve’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.