Zeke Berman, Still Life Photographs: 1980s @Julie Saul

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1979 and 1988. The images range in size from roughly 22×9 to 28×34 (or reverse), with many at roughly 15×19 (or reverse); editions range from 3 to 15, with many edition sizes in between. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Few bodies of photographs from the 1980s have aged as gracefully as Zeke Berman’s black-and-white tabletop constructions. Inscrutable, eccentric, with shadowy motives, and lacking much, if any, redeeming social or political importance, they have remained utterly self-confident in their ramshackle elegance.

At the time, Berman’s studio-based photography didn’t fit into any of the accepted schools. His poverty-row approach to still-lifes was alien to the expensive, slick styles of advertising and commercial magazines. At the same time, his prints were too lush and textured for hardcore Conceptualists. Trained as a sculptor, he took up the view camera in the 1970s to document his own work and found himself intrigued by the possibilities for spatial distortion and manipulation with a tiltable picture plane. In their own peculiar, homemade fashion, his photographs here unify three artistic disciplines—drawing, painting, sculpture—that were once kept separate.

Many of his images in this still-life series mix solid objects (a carafe, striped rubber ball, teapot, banana, Ritz cracker box, tree branch, pair of hatchets, wooden cane) with more overtly linear things (string and wire and rope). Both of these elements are carefully lighted and in many cases positioned against a black velvet background.

Still Life with Necker Cube (1979) is Berman’s interpretation of the famous optical illusion, an ambiguity in which the human eye sees either a cube thrusting to the left or to the right, depending on which of the 12 lines that make up the squares (the 4 on the left or the 4 on the right) the brain interprets as dominant.

In his funky version, assembled on the scratched-up floor of his Chinatown studio, the lines are shakily assembled or never connected. The background is blocked out with taped up-sheets of the New York Times, and one of the “squares” is composed of a broken patch of hexagonal bathroom tiles. The photograph looks like the result of a failed experiment, one that may have begun with noble intensions but that badly failed, either for lack of money or coherent thought. (One of the fine comic touches of the entire gimcrack series is how little Berman obviously spent on supplies for his still lifes—a genre that in 17th century Dutch painting was often an excuse to display ostentatious amounts of food, expensive silverware and virtuosic brushwork.)

The Necker cube makes another appearance in Measuring Cup (1979). This time Berman has drawn the lines in water and put the clear glass in the center of a circular table. The ellipses of the cup and its shadow, along with the faint graduated lines that delineate various amounts on the side of the glass, add geometric complexity while at the same time playing with the illusion of three-dimensionality in a photograph.

Table Study Clay (1982) is perhaps his most elaborate use of a primal sculptural material to comment on the nature of photography. On a flat sheet of clay that he has rolled out across a table like dough, he has embedded numerous objects (a lead pencil, key, eyebolt, Buffalo head nickel) and gouged out lines and troughs in the surface with his hands and fingers. Unlike a photograph, in which reflected light from objects passively leaves an impression on a sensitized plate, this is an actively manmade object and image.

The violence of the claw-like markings suggest a gravesite or crime scene. This interpretation becomes more credible when we read the headline on what seem to be a stack of NYT stories embedded in the clay: “Major Massacre is Reported…” As the author is Raymond Bonner, who in 1981 was a foreign correspondent in Central America, we can assume this is one of his ground-breaking stories on the 900 villagers in El Mozote, El Salvador slaughtered by the Salvadoran army. On top of the clipped newspaper story, Berman has placed a half-full coffee cup, perhaps to indicate how routinely we consume tales of bloodshed with our breakfast.

Not included here in this tiny but choice sample are examples in which Berman used skeins of thread to riff on the minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Fred Sandback. The most grievous omission may be Falling Glass (1983), another playful scrambling of the usual relationship between two- and three-dimensional images. (Berman sculpted a TV set out of clay, twisted its body, and carved the track of a spoon zooming toward us into its “screen,” while in the foreground he has placed a real wine glass that appears to be slipping off the table.)

Some of the works in the series could be seen as cartoonish parodies of scientific illustration or Renaissance art instruction—beams of light without a focal plane or orthogonal lines that never meet and perhaps, as Andy Grundberg once wrote, were “spun out like the webs of a slightly disoriented spider.”

Berman wasn’t the only one having a blast with this sort of material in the 1980s. Robert Cumming, William Wegman, Bruce Nauman, and John Baldessari spoofed academic conventions before he did, while Jan Groover, Barbara Kasten, and James Casebere were more soberly exploring the many formal and emotional dimensions of the still life. Vik Muniz has build his career on exposing the illusions that make up a photograph.

In their investigation of spatial ambiguity, and mirroring, and in their general playfulness, this series anticipates some of the Photoshop or in-camera constructs made in the last 10 years by Michele Abeles, Lucas Blalock, Andrey Bogush, Jessica Eaton, Daniel Gordon, John Houck, Rachel de Joode, Lucas Knipscher, Asha Schechter, and Hannah Whitaker.

Berman’s photographs aren’t satiric exercises, though, so much as Surrealist fantasies. It is even possible to devise a sensational backstory for their provenance. They could be records of DIY projects begun by an amateur in his basement (or bunker) that for mysterious reasons were left unfinished and abandoned, until discovered years later by chance and celebrated now as part of an Outsider Artist’s secret trove.

Berman said in a 1990 lecture that he thought of photographs as “sturdier than sculpture. Because they are so thin, have such physical economy and are made exclusively for our visual contact, they have a kind of immutability.”

As these constructions were probably destroyed soon after their pictures were taken, his photographs were destined to enjoy a longer life. His prediction has been magnified since they were conceived, as the widespread adoption of the Internet and cheap digital production has only increased the independence of the image, unbound now by wall or book, and seemingly leading a deathless existence adrift in cyberspace.

One note: when Berman exhibited these works in the 1980s and ‘90s, most of them were listed as Untitled. Now, they have been given simple descriptive titles (Jar and Wine, Measuring Cup, Rope and Chair), perhaps to make them less hermetic and more marketable. Either way, they embody an improvisatory comic spirit that was rare in photography during that meretricious decade and should only be even more prized today.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $5250, $6250, $6300, $8950, or $12600, generally based on size. Berman’s work has little consistent presence in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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