The Big Chill: “Roe Ethridge: Nearest Neighbor” at the Contemporary Arts Center, October 7, 2016-March 12, 2017

December 17th, 2016  |  Published in December 2016

My place to start thinking about Roe Ethridge’s work and sensibility is his “Thanksgiving 1984 (table)” (2009). It captures the artist’s love of surface, an almost obsessive attention to the glimmering outsides of things unmatched, in some ways, since baroque and rococo paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. The picture sees it all: Thanksgiving’s overcooked beans, undercooked gravy, and a glistening bird that is a work of art in itself, its skin shimmering and perfect, the pop-up timer telling even the least intuitive cook that it’s time for the Thanksgiving display. No food has yet been wounded by spoon or knife. The world’s palest cashews garnish the beans. The meal sits on a garish tablecloth of assorted browns tucked against a wall with an elaborate and clashing blue chinoiserie. The sweet potatoes are crowned with unmelted marshmallows and a small glass carafe of toothpicks is an integral part of the feast.

Roe Etheridge, Thanksgiving 1984 (table), 2009; C-print; Images Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, and Greenlgrassi, London.

Still, there’s something wrong. The title suggests that the picture is paying homage to dinners of the past, but though it designates it as a throwback to 1984, it feels more like 1954. As Curator Kevin Moore notes in his catalogue essay for the show, Ethridge’s work is “lit and framed to convey both the familiar and the perverse.” Moore goes on to suggest that “Ethridge has a nose for the uncanny and an instinct for overabundance.” I’ve been to creepy Thanksgiving dinners in my time, but there is something truly stale and suffocating here. The scale seems off. Are three potatoes going to be enough for the whole gang? Is that bird really the right size? It looks a little like a fabulous feast situated in a dollhouse.

The surfaces are depicted in a style that is neither exactly nostalgic nor clinical. And then you realize: it’s commercial. The commercial attitude towards things is that they’re not yours yet, but could be yours soon. That’s why this intensely domestic image features nothing that looks like it has been loved or used or just lived with in any way. Aesthetically, it is one of the qualities of modern commercial photography to decenter the image. It is like a child’s game: find the object of desire. It could be lurking anywhere. This could be an ad for the bottle of Kitchen Bouquet, displayed with pride in front of the bird it has glazed with as much intensity as Rembrandt’s glazes ever did. Or it could be an ad for the organic Valencia orange that still has a sticker with the supermarket code on it. Or an ad for the pressed glass plate or something sponsored by the National Walnut Council (“Everything goes better with walnuts!”). It could be an ad for a cooking school. Or a photography school.

Oddly, the photograph suggests that spreading our desire over so many potential targets does not, in fact, increase actual desire, which is generally suppressed throughout the pictures in the CAC’s show. (This is true even if–particularly when?–the subject is nude, like “Myla with Column.”) Part of the paradox of commercially-inflected photography, as Roe Ethridge practices it, is that the more our desires are represented, the fewer of them are felt. The sibling image to the Thanksgiving table photograph is “Thanksgiving 1984” (2009) which depicts a portion of the same table, but features a statuesque woman of hyperbolic beauty wearing a yellow cashmere sweater. She is seated amidst the abundance, her hand crossing her chest just above her heart, grazing the gold chain from which is hanging a gold heart pendant. (Say! Is that a Paloma?) In a commentary on this photograph published in “The Cut” for New York magazine (March 6, 2012), Ethridge, who has the gift for speaking candidly about his work, explains that the picture was originally conceived as a commissioned illustration for a calendar page.

I began to think back when I was 14-years-old and my 18-year-old cousin came up to Atlanta from Tallahassee for Thanksgiving, and I had a kind of crush on her….I was also thinking, ‘What did it look like when I was sitting at the table looking across at my cousin? Boobies.’ Which, of course, are covered here in this shot.

The image, then, has its roots at least partly in the simultaneous evocation and denial of adolescent sexual appetite. What makes the photograph uncanny, I think, is the question of just what makes this feast for the eyes so airless, so unenergetic. (Can the handsome lassitude of Don Draper be far behind? It certainly is his world.) Is the source of the problem in our suburban disconnect from other people? The theatricalization of our homes so that everything is a staged backdrop for the life we intend to get around to living one of these days? The decorative free-for-all of the American mid-century where everything is individualized and therefore nothing is? Is it our embrace of the commercial commodification of all the things we thought we wanted? Is it memory itself that makes things so airless? Does that make Ethridge our anti-Proust?

The CAC’s show is one of the centerpieces of this year’s FotoFocus, and it is perhaps the best exemplification of Curator Kevin Moore’s overall theme, The Undocument. Okay: these pictures are not documents. There is evidence of agendas everywhere. Commercially-inflected photography is designed to look—uncannily?—like things, and yet still not carry with it anything more than the ghost of our actual relationship to subject matter, whether things or people. If advertising photography fetishizes things, it does so in the way that takes all the fun out of them. It is both about ownership and hopeless distance. The things that are commercially fetishized are not private and glamorous and surreptitious; they are things that are available to all and consequently available to no one. They are chilly and perhaps cruel. They feature imitations of objects that provoke imitations of desires. Commercial images both enact our desires and mock them.

If the history of advertising tells us nothing, it tells us that we may have to be told what it is that we want, even when things worth our desiring are right there in front of our eyes. There is something about the commercial photograph that, once commercialization has been suggested, it cannot be easily set aside. “Chanel #5 with Yellow Jacket” (2009-2013), one of Ethridge’s signature images, could be trying to arouse our desire for perfume or for a can of Raid. “Sarah Beth with Pipe” (2006) could be a Nan Goldin-esque look into the teenage demi-monde or an ad for a type of lighter or a head shot for Sarah Beth’s next audition. In a world where everything can be for sale, anything can be for sale; there is no intrinsic way to determine the boundaries or to make some things secure.

In Ethridge’s world, we have been guilty of being promiscuous with images, just as we are being promiscuous with our desires. “Refrigerator” (1999) shows how our pictorial imaginations are racing in overdrive. We apparently have so much to say to ourselves that the images attached to the twin doors of the fridge are spilling off onto nearby cabinets, an addendum to the main text. The family dog pads through the kitchen, ignoring the visual clutter. Images have lives of their own. In “Gisele on the Phone” (2013) a model (yes, that Gisele) speaks, looking off to one side, against a tiled wall. She has relatively little makeup on and casually covers her other ear with her hand so she can hear better. Perhaps this is just part of the ad campaign selling her polka dot dress. Or perhaps this is a private moment; the model is between takes and is arranging dinner or a ride home or checking in with the nanny. Or perhaps her look is urgent as well as stylish and this is a still from an early Brian de Palma movie, the scene where the threatened heroine drags the phone into the shower to call, as calmly as she can, for help, while she still can.

Gallery view with Roe Ethridge, “Gisele on the Phone” (2013)

There’s something familiar about these pictures. Perhaps in this day and age, there’s something familiar about all pictures. One of Ethridge’s photographs, “Untitled (PointBreak)” (2010) is a picture of the poster for the 1991 Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze movie Point Break. As waves crash against the shore, a group of three men are disguised as bank robbers disguised as former presidents; above them loom the solemn face of Swayze, the surfer-thief in chief, and the sincere if goofy face of his friend and nemesis, FBI agent Johnny Utah, impersonated by Keanu. He turns to face us as if he has just been caught doing something modestly inappropriate. Ethridge’s is a cold and lifeless photo, but then again, it is the appropriation of a lifeless photo, the commercialization of a commercialization. What do we expect from a poster whose breathless original tagline is “100% PURE ADRENALINE”? But is not wholly impersonal: Ethridge has photoshopped his own face over Swayze’s, putting himself, if not in the movie, then into the movie’s public come-on. It may be that these days, all photographs are pictures of pictures (the show features many such, including photos of labels, photos of logos, a screen capture of an iPhone photo screen), but sometimes they are personalized ones.

In an interview, Kevin Moore has argued that Ethridge’s work is strongly personal, and in the CAC gallery booklet, Moore suggests that it is best to read Ethridge’s pictures in an “autobiographical vein,” of sorts: “Ethridge ignores distinctions between private and public spheres—family photos vs. advertising—to suggest that our lives have become an uncomfortable admixture of individual and collective experiences and fantasies.” The show itself, however, makes it next to impossible to drill down to the personal layer. Ethridge has talked in print in various places quite evocatively about the issues and decisions behind his work. The show doesn’t give or allow him his own voice or lend him anyone else’s. Moore, who gave Aeqai an extensive and generous interview not long ago, is maintaining a very strict silence here at the CAC. This is as opaque a show as I have ever seen. There are a few paragraphs on the wall (virtually in the middle of the show) which say on the one hand that these are works whose goals include “intercepting our natural tendency to construct narratives from one or more photographs,” and on the other that “each of the ‘rooms’ in this exhibition tells a story—or stories—which visitors are invited to uncover.” Aside from that, there is nothing on the walls, and I mean nothing. If you want to know even the names and dates of the works, you need to consult the illustrated gallery booklet. I found this irritating and precious and frustrating (disclosure: I could pick out a story or stories in only a few of the show’s many rooms) and ungenerous. It is fair to note, however, that in a way, our reliance on this booklet continues one of the postmodern arguments implicit in the exhibition: every photograph cannot help but generate copies of itself.

When the personal is revealed, it can do so in complex and intriguing ways. Consider what we might call Ethridge’s car-door suite. He has two pictures of models leaning out of cars, such as “Jess Gold (Car Door)” (2015). Gold sits in relation to (but probably not on) the passenger seat of a car that has no driver’s seat. She is grasping the top of the door in such a way as to make it clear that there is no car here at all. There is probably a fan somewhere blowing back her hair to give the illusion of…what? That this thing that is not a car is speeding along? She leans her head—indeed her whole upper body—out of the window. She smiles pleasantly at the camera, though it’s not impossible that she’s trying to climb out of the car altogether. Her head extends beyond the painted surface of a door–which is presumably mounted on the floor of a studio—like someone posing in an updated version of the carnival cut-out. She will move on to other photographs and the car will move on to other models, leaving no mark on each other.

Roe Ethridge, “Durango in the Canal, Belle Glade, FL,” 2011, C-print; Images Courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, and Greenlgrassi, London

On the other hand, there is “Durango in the Canal, Belle Glade, FL” (2011), where we see a car being winched out of a body of water of uncertain cleanliness, cascades of brown water pouring out its open window. In a story Ethridge has told a number of times (elsewhere, but nowhere in the CAC show), he stopped his car in Florida and got out to take some pictures, forgot to set the parking brake, and the next thing he knew, it had rolled into the water. The picture marks its subsequent extraction. It has everything the car door pictures lack: a physical feeling of weight, a bit of danger (it is very hard in our culture to see a car being pulled out of a body of water and not have forensic expectations), some mystery (what’s that floating above the submerged steering wheel? And are those bubbles in the distance or a lurking alligator, eyes up?), and the sense that we are being pulled into something like a story. There was some dirt in evidence, both inside the car and on the door, which is one way I knew there was nothing for sale.

In an alcove devoted to Ethridge’s previous publications, I found a series called OrangeGrove (2005), a very short book of stunning modesty, poignancy, and elegance with photographs of an abandoned citrus grove that still produced oranges that no one picked, and slowly rotted where they hung. Though none of these works were in the CAC show, I found them moving, and as personal as anything I could see in the exhibit.

Perhaps it was a case of the orange grove finding him. But when Ethridge sets to find out his own subject matter, he is drawn over and over to the same tangle of partly mixed feeling towards the vendible, the antiseptic surface in which he has ventured to find the septic. Moore’s catalogue essay speaks of “Ethridge’s ambivalence towards photography’s role in commercial culture—a culture that has shaped his vision and sustains him professionally.” In a section of the show that seemed to include the political, he has one picture, “Concrete Pour 7” (2007) that shows a bloated metal barrel with rust and peeling flakes of pigment with the name “EMPIRE” proudly painted on it. Okay: I get it. But I presume this is a close up of a cement mixer that was helping to build the new headquarters for Goldman Sachs, a project that Ethridge received the commission to document in 2007 and that led to his publication Le Luxe. As all reviews of this project have noted, Goldman Sachs was in the middle of its New York building project when the financial crisis and recession hit, in which the huge investment company was, shall we say, not uninvolved. Ethridge is not a photojournalist and does not share a journalist’s mandate for even-handedness or possibly even social justice. Besides, the finished book contains a broad range of photos in addition to the construction site material. But for all his ways of creating distance between himself and the commercial world, he is still living the life. His photographs sometimes seem like the work of the privileged insider, a man who takes pictures of supermodels and can title them by their first names. Ethridge is a highly-placed source who will agree to see through the pretenses of his world for us. Is that enough?

Gallery view with Row Ethridge, “Pamela Anderson with Grapes” (2015)

How much recognition of shared humanity do we require of an artist? To be fair, just because he is taking pictures of supermodels does not necessarily mean that the images lack warmth. Ethridge has a picture of “Pamela Anderson with Grapes” (2015) in which the actress and model is leaning her head back to grasp with her teeth the lowermost grape in a bunch that may or may not be plastic. The image is both statuesque and intimate. I was struck, and even touched, by the generosity of the model, just under 50 when the picture was taken, to allow a camera to get so close to the skin by which she makes her living. Like his Thanksgiving pictures, it both celebrates appetites and is completely disengaged from them. Her head is tilted as if in ecstasy, but her eyes are looking upward and elsewhere, and certainly not focusing on the grapes that she is probably not eating. Close up, we can see a line of makeup that has been generously blurred, I presume in post-processing, as has some of her facial hair—the things that keep a human from being as plastic as the grapes. But what a strange thing is a human ear, and Pamela Anderson’s is not sculpted out of marble. We see all its little hairs, and between the open buttons of her top, there is some age-appropriate mottling of her skin. A professional model is someone who—sometimes, at least—allows us to see things that are none of our business.

Two of the least likely photographs in the show were monumental enlargements (one of them was 50×35), each showing a pigeon in flight. In his 2012 commentary for NewYork magazine, Ethridge has written about this series, explaining that he was drawn to make them because he was attracted to birds that could share the city with its human denizens, but he quickly realized that he couldn’t photograph them in situ. In the end, he went to a New Jersey farmhouse and arranged for trained pigeons to be shipped from Universal Studios in Florida. He took his pictures, he explains, drawing upon what he calls the “established image production world.” I take this to mean the complex collaborative effort required to run a successful professional photo studio. I felt in these pictures some of the normally hidden social nature of commercial photography—all the people behind the photographer who is behind the camera who might constitute an invisible source of warmth in his work. There are people to set up and test the strobe lights, and people to toss the pigeons and recover them, and then who must start the process all over again. I found myself wishing that Ethridge’s searching skepticism about the commercial nature of the professional photographer could have extended to a greater recognition of the process involved, and the groups of artisans who mediate unseen, every day, between the auteur and his subject.

Roe Ethridge, “Pigeon” (2001)

Ethridge concludes his comments about these pictures by noting “They’re pigeons, but I guess when they’re silhouetted they don’t look so ordinary,” and ends up placing them within his system of representation: “This series became a surrogate for that character in my works that shows one who is complicit with the camera and the photographer.” I respectfully disagree. I think the pigeon photographs end up so successful because he captured the way they are outside his representational system. They do not seem complicit. They seem “other” in a way very different from the otherness of Ethridge’s supermodels. These pigeons may be the best-trained versions of an animal never likely to be seen as particularly wild, but Ethridge has captured all the wildness left in their DNA. They can claim ancestry with the dinosaurs. They do not play. They looked like avenging angels, like harpies who are capable of coming down and rendering justice on a world that takes its buying and selling too damn seriously.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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