Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lee Friedlander: Mannequin @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against purple and grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints made between 2009 and 2011. Each of the works is sized 18x12 and is uneditioned. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Fraenkel Gallery (here). (Installation shots at right. There is no photography allowed in the gallery, so the images are courtesy of the Pace/MacGill website.)

Comments/Context: Few photographers can boast of having consistently subverted existing visual genres as often as Lee Friedlander has. Over the years, he has radically disassembled the self portrait, the urban scene, the architectural image, the landscape, the floral still life, and even the nude, making each uniquely and undeniably his own. In this show of recent work, Friedlander takes on a classic of street photography - the reflected storefront window - and tries to wholly reenvision a subject that Atget, Abbott, Modell and many others have justifiably made iconic.

Friedlander has long been a master of complex, overlapping, interrupted compositions, so it is not particularly surprising that he was drawn to the layered flatness offered by the alternately transparent and reflective glass of these displays. His mannequins pose with rigid style, draped in clashing reflections and repeated geometric patterns. Sleek torsos are offset by soaring modern skyscrapers and grids of stone windows, sometimes framing the body with bold lines and other times trampling all over the background figure. Areas of dark and light, brightness and shadow, invert compositions and add a double exposure effect. A few of the headless models look like they are actually dressed with buildings, city trees bursting from their heads and metal scaffolding cutting straight through their graceful figures. No one would ever mistake these shop windows for pictures made by anyone but Friedlander.

My one quibbling criticism of these otherwise well made photographs is that a few too many are a bit flat, lacking in the crackling wit that I enjoy so much about Friedlander's work. The compositions are characteristically cluttered, but I just didn't feel the same restless energy and vitality that I do with his other bodies of work. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he hasn't been able to break the rules quite as much with this subject matter as he has been able to do with others; the Surrealists had plenty of fun with reflections like these, so Friedlander's images seem less transgressive and shocking than they normally might. He's at his best when he thoroughly upends the viewer's expectations, and these photographs only turn the chaos up a notch or two from scenes we are already familiar with. All that said, they're still a singular new riff on an old visual motif, and evidence that Friedlander's eye continues to be distinctive and exceptional.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced at $8500 each. Friedlander's work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with prices at auction ranging from approximately $2000 to as much as $80000 in recent years.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: Artcritical (here), New Yorker PhotoBooth (here), Le Journal de la Photographie (here)
Through December 22nd

Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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