Friday, January 14, 2011

Deborah Luster, Tooth For An Eye @Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 individual black and white works, along with 1 diptych, 1 pair of videos, and 1 table and cabinet installation, displayed in the entry gallery and the main divided space in the back. All of the photographs are toned gelatin silver prints mounted on Dibond, made between 2008 and 2010. 30 of the images are sized 24x30, and come in editions of 3+1. 5 of the images are printed larger, either 49x61 (in editions of 2+1) or 55x55 (in editions of 1+1); the diptych is a pair of 49x61 prints (in an edition of 2+1). A pair of videos run on iPads with cast aluminum frames, in an edition of 5+1. The table and cabinet installation includes 6 bound ledgers, with three of the ledgers open and on display; these books include smaller prints from the same series. A monograph of this body of work is forthcoming from Twin Palms (here). (Installation shots at right.).
Comments/Context: I first encountered the work of Deborah Luster a few years ago in connection with her massive portraiture project documenting inmates in Louisiana's prisons. Part of what resonated most strongly with those images was the sense that photographs could be used to ward off forgetting, to ensure that individuals who were invisible were somehow remembered. This same sense of elusive and disappearing history is at the heart of Luster's newest pictures, which capture locations in New Orleans where violent homicides have taken place.

Luster's round black and white images create the impression of looking through a keyhole, where a small degree of curvature and distortion surrounds the central location. The pictures are a taxonomy of overlooked non-places: grimy sidewalks, overgrown alleys, empty street corners, abandoned buildings, quiet train tracks and graffiti covered passageways. Both lacking in people and any visible evidence which could be used to pinpoint the spot of the crimes (chalk circles, blood stains or the like), it is impossible to actually see what happened in these specific locations; the violence has long disappeared from view (whether recent or decades past), and yet it lingers over the grey scenes like a heavy cloud. Notes chronicle the spectrum of horrors, often with multiple incidents occurring at the same site: drive by shooting, stabbing, found in a ditch, shot in the head, beaten with baseball bat, wrapped in a carpet and shot, run over.

Luster's investigation of the nature of memory as applied to a place recalls work as diverse as Angela Strassheim's black light crime scene interiors, Mark Klett's rephotography and Sally Mann's corpses, where places and objects provide clues to a forgotten history, where time has eroded part of the narrative but left remnants behind for viewers to use to imagine both the past and future. Luster's images in particular ask questions about the downstream reverberations of violence, and about how the cycle of homicides and victims can be broken. In her works, a forgettable garbage area or a motel balcony has been infused with the concealed imprint of a remembered incident; how or whether these places can escape their history and begin again is unknown.

I think this work displays an unusual inversion of strength, where the backstory and conceptual framework is much stronger than the individual images themselves would be on their own; often the deserted sidewalk or vacant lot is just that, framed in a formal, documentary manner, and made whole by the knowledge of the murder that is conspicuously absent. As such, I think these photographs will work best in book form, where the relentless piling on of location after location that will come with the flipping of the pages will help to reinforce the scale and immensity of the invisible history; a single image, separated from this larger narrative will likely be somewhat less powerful, especially to those who blow by the wall text and don't understand what the scene represents. That said, Luster's project is a thorough and mature investigation of a complicated and ultimately unphotographable subject - the effects of painful human memory on a weary and indifferent landscape of concrete and brick.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The smaller 24x30 prints are $5000 each, while the larger prints are either $14000 (46x61) or $16000 (55x55). The photographic diptych is $25000, while the pair of videos is $12000. The table/cabinet installation is $85000. Luster's work has little or no auction history, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

My favorite image in the exhibit was Tooth For An Eye, Ledger 03-04, Location: 1100 Block North Prieur, Date(s): Feb 27, 2007, Name(s) Herbert Preston (19), Notes: Recently returned Katrina evacuee. Gunshots to head and body. 2008-2010. It's the image on the left in the group of three below. I liked the interwoven geometries of the plywood boards, the awnings, and the paint dripped stairs.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Review: Times-Picayune (here)
  • One Big Self: Prison Photography (here)
Through February 5th

513 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011

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