New York

Jan Groover

Sonnabend Gallery

Jan Groover’s last series of photographs met with lavish acclaim. Elusive pictures, mostly of cutlery and glass and leaves, were posed in tableaux that defied visual logic, so heady were the reversals of surface and space, of object and reflection.

Heirs to painting’s still life, they played havoc with the old convention. Classically, still life is a construct of ratios between depicted objects. (It is thus a form of representation different in premise from landscape, where the important relation is the one between the perspectival construct, or the three grounds, and the viewer.) In still life the viewer, though still the point of reference, is not the point at which referentiality begins. Somehow the constructive eye is made so internal to the work as to seem excluded from it; thus the coolness of still life, the self-sufficiency of nature morte. It suspends our will-to-power (so invited by landscape); but, of course, other blandishments, subliminal or fetishistic in nature, are offered.

Classical still life presupposes a world of fixed objects and preexistent space (i.e., space that exists beforehand like a table to be set). It believes in a reality that can be represented by means of binary structures like outside and inside, container and contained.

The Groover still lifes upset these conditions (though it may be that photography accepts few of them to begin with). Truncated, cropped, they cross over container/contained lines. Objects are hard to locate; appearances are not fixed; surfaces are fluid (often foils for objects, or screens for outside color and light). And space is shown to be composed by the objects which it presents. In these photographs Groover explores, not certainty and degrees of materiality, but doubt and “degrees of transparency.” It is ironic that the arena here (where reality falls to lurid appearance) is the bourgeois kitchen; ironic too that the event is produced by the camera, the mechanism once consistent with the bourgeois belief in such a reality (and the reality of realism).

People loved them, perhaps too much so for Groover. For the new photographs are dark; a sudden fall a day after spring; melancholic, even morose. The objects, cutlery still, are less instruments of visual magic and more utensils unable to hide predatorial origin. Aggressiveness lurks here; barbarism hides under the bourgeois tableau. It is as if she has stepped from the pastoral land of illusions to a grim hovel in East Berlin. Is she ashamed of her sensuous still lifes and wary of her stylish collectors? It seems so. But the new photographs are comical as much as they are saturnine. Banal objects are made into dark talismans: from one twilight zone or another, the Dürer of Melancholia II has returned in the guise of Irving Penn.

Hal Foster