New York

Christopher Rauschenberg

Parsons-Dreyfuss Gallery

Formalist photography has become so respectable that a curious reversal is underfoot. With so much photography being exhibited everywhere, it is easy to spot where enthusiasms and dissatisfactions are leading. Young photographers who once might have followed the formal route (emphasis on composition, texture, placement, cropping, a few elements under complete control) are slipping over into something else, losing coherence and gaining in informality. Christopher Rauschenberg might have played his hand straight, but perhaps he recognized how easy it is to achieve the nicely juggled photograph, which is nothing more than good design. Rauschenberg could give us clean, well-ordered images, and there is a strong residue of that kind of ambition. But with feet in opposing camps, irresolution becomes the tension in his images. The mixing of formal and informal forces everything to look its worst—simultaneously barren and fraught with meaning. He courts a mannerism.

Take the best, the most mysterious photograph. It might have been taken by a freaked-out Gourmet magazine photographer: a wooden cutting board and pestle hang on a cabinet in a kitchen. We expect a domestic scene, but the shot is all wrong: composition tilted, lighting bad, printing grainy, objects out of focus. We know things could have been done “right”; it is the perversity of knowing something will go wrong every time that keeps us looking. Rauschenberg even carries through with informality to the point where every image has the same crazy tilted horizontals. The point of view is roughly that of a person lying on the floor, head propped up by an elbow. The position clues us in on a kind of dopey eroticism which allows subjects to leave their identities as banal objects and enter a world where everything is sexually insinuating.

An electric clock is chosen as it sits in the middle of a floor because it eventually plugs into a wall via a very long cord. Pestles become phalluses. Water faucets automatically assume a sexual connotation. The kitchen is of particular interest, as well as floors, running boards and splintered walls. A nude in a tub is reduced to a pubis; it is a nude which might have been at least an interesting play of shapes in a formal image. Here it is very likely the object of sexual aggression. The typical shot uses a flash to isolate things—a flash exposing its victim, flushing it out of the dark. Flash is not functioning as an effect. With this sexualization of objects and use of flash, Rauschenberg comes close to equating photography and rape. I am not sure he had that in mind, but it is what is least under control that’s interesting.

Jeff Perrone