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.