Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gregory Crewdson, Sanctuary @ Gagosian Gallery

There was a time when Gregory Crewdson was a quality artist. Natural Wonder, Hover, and even the beginnings of Twilight had an inventiveness and geeky charm to them. But show after show of staged narrative pictures turned Crewdson into a vacuous art celebrity of the likes of Joel Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano.

Yet at the heart of Crewdson’s work is an admirable attempt to make the very photography-specific conceptualism of Jeff Wall accessible to the general art-viewing public. He may have gone about it in a rather ham-fisted way, but he argued effectively that photography is a fiction that is constructed both literally and culturally. He made his case all the more accessible by referencing a relatable medium like cinema, eventually even casting A-list actors into the work.  Granted, the idea that photography is inherently a fiction was well-tread ground even for the early 90’s by the likes of Philip Lorca diCorcia, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, the forementioned Wall. But Crewdson’s pictures have a dumbness and spectacle that made the work the lynchpin for much of the public’s understanding of this basic photographic tenet: that as much as a photograph may look like a representation of the real world, it is a highly-crafted vision of the real world, just like other two dimensional art mediums.

The only problem with Crewdson making a pop version of a diCorcia, Wall, or Sherman was that his success tended to obscure rather than celebrate the art he was championing.  This success also brought Crewdson an apparent gilded cage where despite repeated announcements that he was moving on to some new endeavor like a feature-length film or just another way of photographing, he eventually turned out show after show of the same set-up pictures, with each exhibition looking like left over images from the preceding show. 

This artistic malaise may have cemented his fame, but the lack of artistic vision made him an easy target for photo-geeks everywhere (like yours truly) to the point that his last two shows at Luhring Augustine were met with rare negative reviews in The New Yorker by the ever positive Vince Alletti. But for better or for worse, Crewdson was for a generation of impressionable photography undergrads an introduction, not only to photography as an art but to photographic thought. 

Crewdson’s rise happened at the same time when people were putting more and more money into houses with the belief that they would always increase in value no matter how many of them flooded the market. I can’t help but imagine that similar diminished returns might have taken hold with the funding of Crewdson’s ever-increasing production budgets, which involved shutting down entire streets renting sound stages and a crew of assistants for each shoot. His rumored framing costs alone were the art world equivalent of MC Hammer’s mansion.

And with this, we have Sanctuary and a new gallery, Gagosian’s uptown location, where they tend to ghettoize the photographer they represent, which begs the question does this mean Alec Soth is without a gallery? But despite all Crewdson’s haters in the past, Sanctuary is a surprisingly good show. The black and white pictures of an abandoned Italian movie set of a Roman period set-pieces might not completely revitalize Crewdson’s reputation, but it is a step in the right direction. To butcher a Jerry Staltz quote, “the best thing photography has going for it is the art world tends to ignore it.” Perhaps in the relative seclusion of Gagosian’s uptown gallery, Crewdson will be able to find some artistic freedom he seemed to lack in the spotlight of Luhring Augustine.

Sanctuary’s subject matter allows for Crewdson to make straight photographs that still deal with his longstanding interest in the constructed reality of cinema. The work suggests that if he had experimented earlier, he might just have been able to make pictures as groundbreaking as An-My Lê’s series on Vietnam reconstructionists. Of course, Crewdson’s popularity probably played at least some role in Lê taking on such staged realities in her work.

But this new work is clearly a turning point for Crewdson’s photography. It marks the first time that he has actively used daylight in his pictures, and the effect at times is pretty exhilarating. For instance, the late daylight seen cutting through the mist in what could be a back alley behind the Pantheon is simply wonderful. Sanctuary even has glimpses of the surrounding world. In the background of a photograph of an overgrown set of a thatched village, appears suburban apartment buildings (in Europe that’s where the poor people live) that introduce a sense of discovery that has been so desperately missing in his work. 

But this isn’t to say the work is completely successful either. Crewdson still credits a small crew of assistants in the making of the pictures.  A crew that includes a director of photography who seems to be struggling to figure out how to depict an urban setting with shot after shot of streets disappearing into the center of the frame or awkward formal collages of doorways, windows and buildings. And it wouldn’t be Crewdson’s work if almost everything wasn’t shot at dusk or on an overcast day. At least the new stripped down Crewdson has left behind his signature mysterious lighting sources and blue purple palate. One can only hope that much like Paul Strand or Johnny Cash, this is the beginning of a strong second act and not the last gasp of a washed-up art star.


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