Wicked Artsy: Private and Public Photography

by |
04/10/2009 12:00 PM |

Wicked Artsy is wicked, wicked Benjamin Sutton’s wicked, wicked column on the wicked, wicked arts of our wicked, wicked city. Tell him how wicked he is, in the comments.

By its very nature, photography complicates boundaries between public and private spaces and vision. It’s both capable of bringing private scenes to the public eye, and of inflecting public spectacles with the photographer’s personal visual signature. Four current exhibitions in Chelsea follow this uneasy line through settings where generational rituals, private routines, public spaces and national disasters change the pace of daily life.

At Sonnabend, a retrospective of work by Sweden-based American artist Clay Ketter is structured around his Gulf Coast Slabs, large-scale photographs taken directly above homes washed away during Hurricane Katrina. Focusing on small-town Gulfport, Mississippi rather than the over-photographed New Orleans streets, Ketter captures the total devastation of poor rural areas. The resulting images are stark, white-washed, flat compositions that would be abstract if not for the occasional toilet or sink. Imagine late Mondrian’s colorful geometric grids peppered with a rogue chipped toilet bowl or two. The effect is perplexing at first, and shocking once the subject comes into focus. These vanished homes, wiped out by an epic natural disaster and still ignored by most media outlets, suggest an unusual photographic blind spot that Ketter renders ghostly.

Ghosts of a different sort inhabit Australian Matthew Sleeth’s photographs in the exhibition Various Positions (parts 1 through 6) at Claire Olivier. His massive, mesmerizing images either isolate or invent narratives. Less forcefully than Jeff Wall, Sleeth intimates that there may be larger forces and stories at work in his photographs than the simple everyday activities of everyday folks in any given city, deploying a mix of documentary and digitally composed shots. Terrific use of light — as it collects on a frozen lake or bounces chaotically over a skyscraper’s curtain walls — adds an isolating, melancholic hue to Sleeth’s work. Whether honing in on private moments or public activities, his photographs seem to cut their subjects off from the surrounding world.

Jem Cohen takes a less narrative, typically political approach to public and private space in his project New York: Still & Moving at Robert Miller Gallery. Merging his documentary photography with video, sound and installation, Cohen practically becomes a performance artist as he chronicles the story of a camera being confiscated by the NYPD. Throughout the series of new and older works, he pictures the city as a place of public and private transition, where bodies and buildings spend some years then move on, a little better or worse off (usually worse) for their time. The Afghani-American photographer’s ongoing crusade for greater public awareness, access and opportunity looks all the more radical alongside Patti Smith’s fluffy exhibition Veil, which occupies the other half of Robert Miller’s space.

Considerably more intimate passages and rituals are on display at ClampArt’s dense and outstanding group exhibition Kids Behaving Badly. Between Jill Greenberg’s stylized, glossy toddler portraits, Brian Finke’s parodic flickers of high school Americana and Mark Morrisroe, Collin Lafleche (pictured) and David Armstrong’s candid snapshots of tentative teen sexualities, each artist finds a gentle balance between voyeurism and vulnerability. Youth emerges as a lurching force, one minute marching headstrong the next anxiously curled around itself. Photography offers a gripping account of the process in these 14 artist’s work, capturing moments of personal development that are both intensely private and fundamentally universal.

Clay Ketter at Sonnabend, 536 W 22nd St (between Tenth and Eleventh Sts), until April 25

Matthew Sleeth: Various Positions (parts 1 through 6) at Claire Olivier, 513 W 26th St (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until April 18

Jem Cohen: New York: Still & Moving at Robert Miller Gallery, 524 W 26th St (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until April 18

Kids Behaving Badly at ClampArt, 521-531 W 25th St (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until April 25