New York

Ralph Gibson and Jan Dibbets

Leo Castelli Gallery

In 1976 Ralph Gibson showed a series of black-and-white photographs of parts or details of things (the edge of a building, the contour of a body) in which there was a vacillation between the incident of the subject and that of the print (traces of its constituent chemicals). Description of subject passed to definition of medium as the terms—the details—seemed to apply to both. In these pages Phil Patton noted “the way grain and texture occupy the same level of fineness without interference.” I think there was interference but of a sort that was sublimated in the commutation of subject and photograph.

Such interests also inform the new show. The photographs are now in color, but the subjects are much the same: painted brick walls, building edges, asphalt grounds. Here, besides the equivocation of grain and texture, there is an equivocation of photographic and painterly color (the texture of the walls and such imparts to color the tactility of paint). Color is hard to locate: it is neither at the surface of the subject nor at the surface of the print.

Gibson, I think, plays upon our reflex to subordinate photography and to contrive a reductive genealogy for it out of painting. In effect we are lured to use critical norms that are not pertinent. The equivocation of grain and texture is reminiscent of the equivocation of paint as paint and as descriptive tool, but it is a false association—photography allows for no such manipulation. Moreover, with subjects that are painted, flat, and often frontal, one may think in terms of the integrity of the picture plane, but, again, it is a misappropriation of a painterly notion. Gibson wants us to see a relation between the media: if we see photography as parasitic, he suffers, even confirms, us in that bias; if we see further, where association dissociates, and makes distinctions between the arts, he guides us. It is a strategic, subtly polemical photography.

The title of the show is “Theorem.” A theorem is a proposition that is not self-evident. An assumption is also a proposition that is not self-evident but thinks itself so. One assumes that photography is derived from painting—“Theorem” proposes that it is not. More, one assumes that photography is merely descriptive—“Theorem” proposes that it may be definitional, even epistemological.

Jan Dibbets has pursued concerns whose parameters were set nearly a decade ago; perhaps they have come to fruition in his newest works, entitled Structure Panoramas. In these works, photographs of contiguous pieces of ground (mostly cobblestone streets) are composed in arcs, semi-circles or semi-ellipses, with the squares of the print format drawn together to be flush or “meet” with the curvilinear design. Underneath each arc is a recondite geometric system which either defines the image or is derived from it.

Dibbets’ work is often related to Dutch landscape, and it is true that he is compulsive as regards that genre. But perhaps it is more apropos, as far as the Panoramas go, to recall Dutch cartography. Relevant to both Dibbets and the early cartographers is the need to translate volumes to planes, the need to reconcile known wholes (like the sphere of the globe) with observed parts (like a coastline), which is to say, the need to mediate rationalist and empirical methodologies. One mediation may be imagination, and its vehicle, drawing (one thinks of the way the old cartographers drew fear and desire into the lines of the dimly known continents). It is the (co)operation of rationalism, empiricism, and imagination or faith that accounts, it seems, for the fineness of those old maps—to say nothing of the great Flemish Renaissance painting. One sees a bit of that fineness in Dibbets’ work.

Hal Foster