Critics’ Picks

View of “João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: WHERE THE SORCERER DOESN’T DARE TO STICK HIS NOSE and Another B&W Ghost Show,” 2018.

New York

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva

Andrew Kreps Gallery
55 Walker Street
September 6–October 20

Recent photographic production has often been described with watery metaphors: floods and oceans and rivers of images, the better to belabor the torrential rate of current lens-based output. Amid these wordy swells, I began to conceive of the world’s camera apertures as so many storm drains—catchments for the unconsidered drizzle of human experience. This indiscriminate, junky schema came to mind while watching João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s Camera test (vacuuming the studio), 2018, a 16-mm film made by mounting a lens on a vacuum wand to form a mongrel contraption that roams an untidy floor, sucking up everything in its path: bolts, screw eyes, scraps of paper, lozenges of turquoise chewing gum, Kodak 120 box tops.

It’s a satisfying sight gag. But this casual hoovering of images is actually the opposite of Gusmão and Paiva’s typical working method: They shoot like ethnographers or experimental physicists might, creating studied portraits of recondite cultural phenomena and of visual experiences that the photographic apparatus alone can capture—a close-up of a monk’s tonsure being shorn with a straight razor (The Initiate, 2008); a lens recording its own occlusion by the spinning blades of a plastic fan (The green shutter, 2018). Silent and slow-motion, the works conjure the close, tranquilizing hush of a classroom dimmed for an educational-movie screening.

Accompanying the films is a series of large-scale gelatin silver prints depicting sculptures in progress for a “fictitious” exhibition—convincing facsimiles of the sort of earnest studio shots popularized by Cahiers d’Art in the interwar period. In one picture, successive arcs of thinly rolled sculpting wax are, per the title, a depiction of a jumping flea; in another, a gloopy sphere rises from concentric ripples on the surface of what appears to be a tree stump—its subtitle, Droplet, suggests that the odd conglomeration is a splash’s corona, as if revealed under engineer Harold Eugene Edgerton’s strobe. Gusmão and Paiva’s representations manage to cast the banal as otherworldly and the numinous as intelligible. Is there any better fulfillment of what it means to be visionary?