Willa Nasatir @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 black and white and color photographs, generally framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in two rooms and the adjacent hallway on the fifth floor of the museum. 9 of the works are chromogenic prints (many mounted on black wood), made in 2017. The other 7 works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2017. Detailed information on edition size and dimensions was not provided on the wall labels. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Among New York’s major art museums, the Whitney has consistently been an institution that has taken risks in supporting emerging artists with solo exhibitions. While other venues have, for the most part, given early (and mid) career photographers a moment in the spotlight via inclusion in broad-based group shows, the Whitney has a history of going further. The museum’s show of Ryan McGinley’s work in 2003 is perhaps the most notorious of these emerging forays, but more recent support for artists like Sara VanDerBeek and Corey Arcangel (among others) has shown that the curators are willing to place some bets, especially when the artists can educate visitors about larger trends taking place in the medium.

The newest recipient of the Whitney’s early career attention is Willa Nasatir, her small solo show tucked away in a pair of side galleries. We reviewed Nasatir’s first solo show at White Columns back in 2015 (here) with forward-looking enthusiasm, and this presentation of new work offers a fuller demonstration of the same basic aesthetic themes on view there.

Part of the allure of Nasatir’s work, at least curatorially, is that it ticks off several boxes in the on trend contemporary photography checklist. It is rooted in deliberate construction (in the form of studio staging), it employs layers of careful rephotography, and it consciously mixes analog and digital processing techniques, with a somewhat contrarian emphasis on analog approaches. When merged together into one integrated whole, the photographs offer a teachable moment in the kind of conceptual framework that has gained traction with photography insiders.

Nasatir’s compositions are essentially step-by-step progressions that incrementally increase the level of visual distortion. In her large scale color works, she begins with small still life assemblages of identifiable objects – a glove, a pink car, a door handle, the head of a plastic flamingo, a car mirror, a doll leg, a moped helmet, a tiny bed – where each item introduces formal interest and contrasts of volume and surface. Glassy crystal meets animal print fabric, with silvery metal and fuzzy fur included in the palette of textures, the singular use of toys and miniatures vaguely reminiscent of the work of Laurie Simmons.

These diverse objects are then placed into cramped, fun house spaces constructed of mirrors and Plexiglas sheets (think Barbara Kasten), creating layers of expressive reflections, transparencies, and colored tints. Nasatir’s interventionist toolbox also includes a wash of kaleidoscopic theatrical lighting, whose bold colors sometimes verge on the garish, creating additional flares and watery refractions that disrupt the proceedings.

Process-wise, much of this iteration takes place in the analog world (via meticulous steps of rephotography), and then ultimately, the converted images are further manipulated and processed digitally, although these modifications and tweaks are harder to pick out. Many of the end result images are covered with a crackled network of intricate lines like a spiderweb, giving the impression that the emulsion is breaking down or dissolving right before our eyes.

In the smaller black and white works, Nasatir employs similar compositional and interventionist strategies, but the images are more allusive to the throwback motifs of photographic Surrealism. In one work, hammer heads (in repetition) and a high chair are turned into negatives and the swirled by sinuous waves of all over distortion that recall the bottom of a swimming pool on a sunny day. In others, broom heads are echoed by sweeping surface markings, while hanging train cars, paint cans, and picket fences offer more incomprehensible allusions.

While Nasatir’s sculptural construction process creates plenty of opportunities for sophisticated visual illusions and more cerebral symbolism (in both color and black and white), the danger is that the cacophonous compositions can wander too closely into artful preciousness, where the outcome feels earnestly staged but quietly underwhelming. In too many of these works, the arrangement of objects is mysteriously inert, the process layers adding hand crafted dissonance to an underlying structure that doesn’t resonate with enough meaning. The trap is that this kind of deliberate elusiveness can tip into shadowy hollowness, the forms and textures intriguing in their own right but not particularly forceful other than as intricately plotted experimentation. In one selection where the works are hung edge to edge, the images wash into each other, the set-ups bleeding together and losing much of their individual coherence.

Like many early career shows (regardless of the prestige of their venue), Nasatir’s exhibit feels both promising and in need of another round or two of tightly edited evolution – it’s natural for an artist’s approach to be undergoing some active rework after just a few years of cyclical projects. But the prominence of the Whitney’s galleries (and the proximity to the thoroughly smart Hélio Oiticica retrospective nearby) puts a set of much higher expectations on this work than it can rightly handle at the moment. Nasatir’s contagious innovation and energy are balanced by an overworked sense of too many flourishes that are muddying the clarity of her vision (even if she is interested in exploring the back alleys of visual ambiguity). There are enough flashes of inspiration and newness here to support this early career one-to-watch anointment and to give more casual museum goers a sense for what is going on of the front lines of contemporary photography, but the core power of Nasatir’s work hasn’t gone through enough rounds of ruthless annealing yet to entirely match this prestigious singled-out status.

Collector’s POV: Willa Nasatir is represented by Chapter NY (here). Her work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. Nasatir had her first museum show earlier this year at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (here).

Read more about: Willa Nasatir, Whitney Museum of American Art

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