New York

John R. Gossage

Leo Castelli Gallery - Uptown

Like anyone who ever took a new camera out into the yard to test it on the neighborhood squirrels, the family dog, the roses in the garden, John Gossage takes “conventional pictures.” But not quite. Gossage adds a smidgen of difference. He parodies the amateur picture and adds touches of flaunted skill and hidden conceit. The squirrel here seems almost to have gotten away, the picture almost missed; but gaze again and that squirrel seems to be peering out over the edge of the frame in mockery. Then you realize how close up he is seen, how cleverly his movement has been caught, despite the awkwardness—how close, in fact, the picture has come to succeeding despite its obtuse angle of attack.

Even such poor conventions are worthy of manipulation. Even such crudeness is technique that can be refined into a genre. Casualness, to some degree intentional, is a key axis on the graph of modern photography, and casualness is the center of Gossage’s concern. Inflected here with the accents of self-consciousness, casualness gently mocks things unnoticed by the amateur photographer.

The photos include a view of tangled garden plants in which a rose is the apparent center of interest, but where, as in many amateur shots, the photographer has failed to notice a background that comes forward in the final print to overwhelm the poor rose in a jumble of streetcorners, power lines, and fences. The prints are large; they carry the images fully to the grain and thereby exaggerate their crudeness. In most of the images things have moved, and edges have been sheared off. The whole effect, however, might have been stronger in color, since that is the medium favored by such backyard photographers in the straightforward belief that it, like color television, is more “accurate.”

Amateur errors grow humorous in Gossage’s easy mastery of them, but at the same time work to draw attention to fascinating details: the smoothness of a plant’s leaf, the texture of a hen’s feathers. Several of the images appear to encompass larger spaces, like the corners of a backyard garden or lawn. These spaces are conventionalized, too, and the “homemakers” have cultivated them in conventional ways. But their enlargement and segregation is an artistic effect: one thinks of Henri Rousseau, painting jungles from his terrarium.

Gossage’s play on conventions generally illuminates the professional convention of making incidental, casual-looking pictures. I may be forcing coincidence further than Gossage does, but the background in one picture is a ringer for that in a well-known Lee Friedlander picture where a woman crosses the street, and beside the street here is a signpost: “Lee Avenue.” Coincidences, still, but this street seems to mock even the sort of image which a few years ago seemed so casual and chaotic as to avoid convention altogether. Gossage shows the convention by breaking out of it.

––Phil Patton