The West 20th Street gallery Jack Shainman, with its two large galleries and series of smaller rooms, generally shows works by two artists simultaneously. But rarely do its parallel exhibitions work together so well as the current pairing of Deborah Luster's circular black-and-white photos of murder sites in New Orleans and Carlos Vega's etched, punctured and painted sheets of lead (both through February 5). The two could not be more different, whether materially, stylistically or in terms of their temperament, and the extreme juxtaposition adds immensely to the impact of each.
Deborah Luster's large-format circular photos, the shape of which is the result of her 8×10 Deardorff field camera, evoke portholes to a different world. The first few pieces in her show, Tooth for an Eye, sustain this sense of dislocation, and it's only gradually that the time and place pictured becomes clear: post-Katrina New Orleans. The images are incredibly forceful and eerily beautiful, even without reading the exhibition description and discovering that each was the site of a murder. The all-encompassing emptiness of the city after the flood takes on spectral tones in light of the homicidal theme—Weegee-style crime scene photography this most definitely is not. Luster manages to convey that desolation with great sensitivity, an impressive accomplishment considering the restricted and often cramped compositions of circular images. The format lends these photos an unexpected softness, the broad curves playing against the rigid diagonals of trash-strewn streets in undeveloped subdivisions, train tracks under elevated highways, narrow alleys and concrete sidewalks. Knowledge of the locations' criminal past renews the sense of devastation: not only was this city abandoned to a natural disaster in 2005, most of its citizens remain in a state of perpetual abandonment. Luster melds notes of unsettling beauty and intense sadness—a "Fuck You" tag at one murder site seems directed at the viewer standing safely in the Chelsea gallery. The massive series, which can be perused in its totality in large bound ledgers in the main gallery, punctuates a metropolis in mourning with more personal and specific death notes. An unfortunate decision to include two screens framed in kitschy lockets marked "Friends" and "Family" on which photo-portraits of the deceased pass in a looping slideshow detracts from the ghostly absence felt throughout Luster's photos.
Carlos Vega's etched, perforated, painted and collaged lead sheets substitute grayscale for the black-and-white of Luster's photos. One piece in particular, the epic "Nebula" (2010), looks minimalist from certain angles where the light doesn't catch the grooves marked on the malleable lead surface. Getting closer one picks out the scene: a huge Broadway-sized theater filled with spectators looking towards the stage, which we can't see. Above them, an explosion of color has ripped through the metal, allowing us glimpses of the colorful collage beneath. As with Luster's photos, the presentation creates the experience of looking in, of peeking onto a concealed or rarely glimpsed scene—not quite voyeurism, more like being in on a secret. In other pieces Vega paints the marks he makes on the matted gray surface in sparse, bright hues, conveying brushstrokes that are wispy and delicate in appearance, but thick and heavy in dimension. He moves between figurative etchings and collages—a tree, a tuft of grass filled with strange insects—and abstract patterns of objects and carved notches, like the Tomasellian set of concentric rings rippling outwards from rocks embedded at the center of "Worn Out" (2011). Aside from the intrigue of this highly tactile and rarely used material, Vega's collaged, painted bas-relief sculptures are incredibly rich and sensitively composed, the subtle work on the metal surface contrasting with the elaborate found materials layered beneath, all assembled into sometimes-jarring, sometimes-organic relations. Each piece demands close, detailed inspection, whereas Luster's photographs require distance, and work well in great numbers as one flips through the whole series.
The interaction between the two—with the large-format photos hung generously in groups and series while the lead pieces are gathered in small rooms that invite close inspection—made for one of the few memorable viewing experiences during a recent tour of Chelsea. Vega's bright, magical and idiosyncratic pieces provide much-needed and very vivid optimism to play off the documentary harshness of Luster's arresting photos. But there's also a good deal of violence in the way Vega carves and punctures each sheet of lead, which can't help but evoke the acts of human violence that make the locations Luster shoots more significant than the vacant lot around the corner, or the deserted bit of sidewalk down the block. Both artists draw our attention to one little bit of activity in a larger field of possibility—the gleaming lead sheets, the devastated New Orleans cityscape. This set of overlapping contrasts and parallelisms makes the juxtaposition of these two exhibitions improbably enriching, their force amplified by their proximity.
(images courtesy the artists, Jack Shainman Gallery)