Tuesday, September 21, 2010

John Pfahl, Métamorphoses de la Terre @Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color photographs, framed in dark brown and matted, and hung against a mix of white and yellow striped walls in the main gallery space. The works are digital prints on Innova paper, each 13x19 and printed in editions of 12. All of the images were made in 2010, from negatives taken in the previous thirty years. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: John Pfahl has spent the better part of his photographic life exploring the edges of the landscape genre, applying intellectual and conceptual overlays to the sheer beauty of nature. In his newest body of work, he uses digital distortion to investigate the swirling patterns found naturally in rock formations, lava flows, and lake beds, turning these stratifications and geological wonders into gestural, rhythmic abstractions.

Pfahl's manipulations feel both painterly and mathematical, where the plane of the image is alternately twisted, elongated, bent, and shaken, creating pulsating angles and curves that undulate and repeat across the surface. The natural colors get squished together in layers, creating a marbling effect (reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's squeegeed colors in his overpainted photographs) as the colors are forced to morph and mix. The best of the images become chaotic, slashing, all-over refractions, nearly unrecognizable as something specific. I particularly enjoyed the sandy scratchiness of Roadcut, California, the dense heartbeat patterning of Zion Canyon, Utah, and the unbalanced, lyrical back and forth of Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Wyoming.

The challenge with this kind of project is that there is a fine line between innovative conceptual thinking and overly-clever Photoshop trickiness. The most successful images in this show stay away from obvious visual gimmicks and transform the landscape into something both rooted in reality and altogether foreign. Using the land as the basis for energetic, expressionistic abstraction isn't perhaps a wholly new idea, but Pfahl's digital manipulations offer a contemporary twist on the concept of imposing our own sense of beauty on the already breathtaking natural world.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are reasonably priced at $2000 each. Even though Pfahl has had a long and successful career, his work is not routinely available in the secondary markets. As such, gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Altered Landscapes in George Eastman House collection (here)
John Pfahl, Métamorphoses de la Terre
Through October 15th
560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

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