Comments/Context: As the summer is now upon us, our local movie theaters are starting to fill up with usual crop of big budget blockbusters, those warm weather benchmarks of broad based American culture. If this year's calendar is any guide, it looks to be another season of massive explosions, car chases, smashes and crashes, a continuous assault on our senses with ever increasing pace and intensity. From the perspective of these offerings, it seems we all long to be 13 year old boys, caught in a video game populated by superheroes and obvious bad guys.
With this kind of contemporary story telling as a backdrop, Richard Learoyd's camera obscura portraits feel like outright rebellion, a blatant, unrepentant reversal of priorities. They are consciously slow, our frenetic lives paused for a moment, that pause stretched and extended until our blunted awareness becomes sharp again. His portraits and still lifes are hurricanes of stillness, where the enveloping silence allows us to quiet ourselves down and really look. The pictures reveal themselves in delicate increments, where the luminosity of skin, the texture of hair, and the purity of curvature add up to personal uniqueness, and where tiny imperfections are the emblems of personality.
In many of Learoyd's previous portraits, his subjects typically stood alone in a cone of light, posed in a kind of dead-eyed numbness, lost in a reverie of mute introspective solitude. In these most recent works, the sitters offer a little more subtle expression and a little more uneasy tension. Agnes sits draped in a luxurious dark brown fur, her tangle of hair swirled into loose elegance, her lips a hint of dark red; but her expression isn't blank like before - it mixes a hint of weary glamour with an undercurrent of hard resolve, making her all the more mysterious.
Learoyd's nudes are more intricately posed this time as well. Vanessa hangs gracefully with one arm in the air, her right arm gently crossed over, resting near a bruise on her left leg. Tiny Phie stands in stockings, leaning against the edge of a table, her thin frame pulled tight in a slight twist, her ribs unsettlingly revealed under her skin. And Vanessa lies on the same table, covered in diaphanous black cotton and turned away, her right arm crossed back over her chest. In each case, Learoyd has gone further than simple standing bodies, giving us more to hold onto.
While Learoyd's earlier still lifes generally left me cold, I think this newest group is much stronger. Strung up and trussed like Araki bondage nudes, his flamingos and rabbits hang with limp tragedy, the spread of a wing or the line of a drooping neck becoming a kind of lifeless dance. His severed horse's head goes further, mixing the perfection of the tight depth of field with the revulsion of the dripping blood, finding a balance that is grotesquely engaging.
I think Learoyd has often run the very real danger of falling into the "stone faced girl looking over her shoulder" cliché which is all too prevalent in contemporary photography; some of his earlier portraits were too haltingly deadpan for me. Luckily, his technique is undeniably innovative and it has consistently produced glorious light and staggering detail. But on their own, even these aren't enough to make durable photographs. This show is evidence that his mastery of his process has begun to open up new creative avenues. An evolving sense of composition and a willingness to explore nuances of emotion and expression are both on view here, making both the nudes and the still lifes more fresh and compelling. Learoyd is continually paring the portrait form down to its essences, and when he gets it just right, his pictures suck us into their astonishing private world, focusing our easily distracted attention and centering us on the overlooked subtleties of individuals. They offer a look at unadorned quiet beauty that we have often forgotten could actually be real.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced between $65000 and $80000, based on size. This represents a steady step up from his last show at the gallery in the fall of 2011. Learoyd's prints have very little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
- Review: New Yorker (here)
Richard Learoyd: Still/Life
Through June 21st
745 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10151