New York

Ralph Gibson

Leo Castelli Gallery - Uptown

I first became familiar with Ralph Gibson’s work through his latest book of photographs, Days at Sea. The book is published by Gibson’s own house, Lustrum Press, and it exhibits the full self-indulgence of the artist who is also his own publisher. The cover of Days at Sea shows a picture of a woman sliding a large white feather between her naked buttocks, and the pictures inside indulge in the same kind of cheap sexuality, along with a number of tired Surrealist gags. A few pictures, however, are striking exceptions to this pattern, and they are the type Gibson showed at Leo Castelli.

Castelli’s photographers are coming to be a group of predictable elegance and predictable bent. They are among those current photographers who are interested in creating a new type of picture of objects, as opposed to situations or landscapes. They are heirs of Surrealism, and neighbors of Conceptualism, but in the process of creating their own genre. Photographers like Hans Namuth or Lewis Baltz share with Gibson a similar sensibility, a yearning for objectivity and simple presence.

Gibson’s mode is more indirect, however. He calls his show “Quadrants,” perhaps because he approaches the objects partially and obliquely: his pictures look as if they could be quarter segments of a full attack on the object. Gibson treats details—corners of buildings or rooms, sections of clothing, fragments of face and body. Rarely, even in what are practically portraits, is the entire face or head shown. Many of the objects are photographed at the edge of a black background so that the texture of edges is accentuated. Because of the close-up style—even the pictures of the body are always larger than life-size—the specificity of texture shows up clearly. Gibson pushes his pictures to the grain: he is interested in the way grain and texture occupy the same level of fineness without interference.

One has the feeling that these are honest pictures, unlike those in Days at Sea. Not only do they go all the way to the full resolution of the pictured grain, but they are able to plunge into detail by indirection, without allowing you to forget what they are pictures of. These photos are sometimes slim in content, occasionally nearly empty, but they yield neither to the banality of wholeness nor to the banality of detail.

A similar pattern rules sexuality in these photos. Sexuality is present only by suggestion, by significant detail. It runs along the neck band of a woman’s shirt or stares from the uncovered eye of another woman, gazing into the sun while a hand shields the rest of her face. It is even present in the water glass on a table when the only signs of human presence are some folds of clothes and a elbow or two on the table cloth. In that picture the reflections seem almost to tremble, as an index of the emotions of people outside its frame.

The grain functions in Gibson’s work as a reminder that the photograph is merely that. One gets caught up in the delicacy of a texture and then is suddenly brought back to earth—back to the plane of the print—by the discovery that bits of texture are almost identical with bits of grain. The balance between grain and texture is of the same delicacy as the balance between detail and recognizability, between presence and sensuality, between part and whole. Gibson’s show at Castelli maintained these balances; elsewhere he has grossly violated them.

––Phil Patton