Tracking @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 15 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. The exhibit was curated by Anita Qian.

The following photographers have been included:

  • Garrett Grove: 5 archival pigment prints, 2015, 2016, 2017, roughly 20×16, 25×20, 24×30, or 29×36 inches, no edition information provided
  • Dawn Kim: 5 archival pigment prints, 2019, roughly 11×7 or 11×14 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • Olivia Reavey: 4 silver gelatin fiber prints, 2019, 2020, 20×24 inches, in editions of 4+2AP, 1 archival inkjet print, 2021, 16×20 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the unlikely results of being taught to think deeply and critically about photography as a student is that artists who have this kind of academic training can end up using similar frameworks when searching for imagery. For those who have been schooled in some of the top undergraduate and graduate photography programs in America (some of which have a decidedly conceptual bent), successful photographs are almost by definition those that resist easy interpretation. When a picture refuses to resolve, or deliberately makes its narrative obscure or undefined, it can then be freighted with all kinds of ideas, or at least leave both the artist and the viewer with plenty of open space for interpretation.

Stylistically, much of this kind of photographic thinking sets its intellectual roots back in the 1970s, particularly with the deadpan incomprehensibility of Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Something strange was going on in all of the found photographs in Evidence, but what it was, or what it might mean, wasn’t at all clear. At the time, these kinds of pictures cut against the traditional clarity of what (and how) we thought a photograph was supposed to communicate, and thrummed with a perplexing open-ended energy that we couldn’t quite identify. In the decades since, the conceptual lessons of Mandel and Sultan (and others) have permeated many streams of contemporary photography, leading not only to the entire genre of the found (or staged) visual oddity, but to more subtle forms of visual misdirection and unease.

The three young photographers included in this group show – Garrett Grove, Dawn Kim, and Olivia Reavey – are linked together by picture making that finds its foundation in unresolved situations and fluid, allusive symbolism. While the subject matter and vantage point of each artist is different, this edit (of just 5 images each) works to highlight commonalities of approach, where expressive singular moments are given room to breathe.

We first got to know Garrett Grove’s work in his excellent 2019 photobook Errors of Possession (reviewed here), and the prints on view here come from that body of work. Taken out of the broader context of life in the rural Pacific Northwest, the mythologies of the West, and the fractured political realities of the past few years, the works here hover in quiet discomfort. “Joe & Herman” is a standout of head scratching juxtaposition, where a dragon-tattooed arm holds a grey parrot as it tries to stand on a globe, the whole flash-lit scene seemingly staged in the back of a van – whether this is just one eccentric vignette from a travelling life or a broader commentary on the world and our place in it, or both, depends entirely on your perspective. The same might be said for a man awkwardly sliding down a massive pile of potatoes, a thrown cowboy hat hovering in the night air amid sparkles of falling snow, and another man staring into the large motor of a combine as though it might hold the answers to the questions of the universe. Grove seems to seek out the point of tension to be found in a photograph, and then lingers there while the possibilities unfold.

In Dawn Kim’s case, the uncertainties of faith, or at least the malleable structure of its stories, connects the handful of pictures she has contributed to Tracking. Photographs made inside churches, at children’s religious plays, and in other locations are layered with Christian motifs, encouraging the viewer to read them allegorically. A boy getting his eyes painted black before a performance is cast as Adam, a girl tugging at her hair in front of a mirror takes the role of banished Eve, and a man shearing a black sheep is of course a good shepherd. But like Grove, Kim is drawn to moments of subdued strangeness, where a boy dressed as a shepherd waits by an exit door with his bare foot extended out beneath his robe, and a shiny cloth covering a statue in an empty church billows out, blown into an elegant (and perhaps even menacing) form by an unseen wind. Kim’s photographs feel nested, the surface action and the possibilities of underlying religious context interacting to make each image more eerily resonant and expansive.

Olivia Reavey looks for moments of uncertainty by training her female gaze on male subjects, waiting for inevitable vulnerabilities to appear. “Matt Shedding” is the most uneasy of her images in the show, his peeling sunburnt skin pulled away from his leg like a sloughed off plastic covering, a distortion in the emulsion making the thin transparent skin look even more disturbingly melted. Other works use the shimmer of moving blur, the refraction of black water, and the tactile roughness of enveloping white linen to give male bodies a sense of fragility. “Andrew on a Branch” brings us full circle back to the surreal oddness of Evidence, the exact reasons why naked (except for one sock) Andrew finds himself lying awkwardly on a thin tree branch left pleasingly undefined.

Once the rudiments of craft are mastered, the hardest problem facing a young photographer is how to find and communicate a unique personal photographic vision – it sounds like a cliché, but most photographers never make it past this first real artistic hurdle, and many (if not all) spend a lifetime refining and reinventing this individual voice. Based on the tightly-edited evidence presented here, these three photographers can claim success in their early efforts to define their own artistic playing fields, and resultingly, place themselves on lists of those to watch in the coming years.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by artist:

  • Garrett Grove: $1650, $1950, $2300, $2950 each, based on size
  • Dawn Kim: $600, $1000 each, based on size
  • Olivia Reavey: $1200, $2200 each, based on size

None of the photographers has a consistent presence in the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Dawn Kim, Garrett Grove, Olivia Reavey, Janet Borden Inc.

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