New York

James Casebere

Diane Brown Gallery, Sonnabend Gallery

James Casebere’s photographs seem to aspire to the condition of language—or at least to its generality. Stripped of detail and reduced to simple white forms, the objects he carves out of wood and arranges in his setups are carefully unspecific. They aren’t even themselves; instead they allude to recognizable generic forms—flower pots, detergent bottles, teddy bears. His constructions, several of which were shown at Sonnabend, are doll-sized, like architectural models for the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but in themselves they’re fairly uninteresting. It’s only when he photographs them, choosing emotionally fraught points of view and melodramatic chiaroscuro lighting to heighten their references to theatrical and film conventions, that they take on their full complexity. Then the interplay among the various codes he manipulates becomes intense, with his generic objects presented in a medium (photography) that deals in specifics, and lit and framed according to the standardized, immediately recognizable emotional grammar of theatrical narrative.

Much of Casebere’s work has referred directly to middle-class suburban family life, that mysterious labyrinth that many other artists are also trying to thread their way back into. But increasingly his scripts seem drawn from the broader cultural text—one picture here is of a generally “Spanish” scene (arched doorways, tile roofs), while another is of a suitably Gothic mill, like something out of Dickens. Casebere is also toying with another code in this work—that of art, both with and without quotation marks. The large transparencies at Diane Brown, each with its own elaborate light box, seem designed to emphasize the shadings produced by the moody raking light; the setups could even be seen as related to the light modulators of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his followers, though the graphic model for Casebere’s explosively dense compositions would seem to be Cubism rather than Constructivism.

All in all this is an intricate set of meaning-games, with references chasing one another through the various levels of code that Casebere sets up. At times the sheer cleverness of the play seems to take over, suggesting a sort of arcane pig Latin of signification. A curious aspect of the Brown exhibition was the inclusion of full-sized furniture—benches, chairs, tables. Simple yet elegant, apparently made out of boards hammered together and painted white, these items could be tied into the cultural code of the “mid-’50s lawn furniture,” but their simple utility made that intellectual game somewhat gratuitous. Too much wit can grow wearisome.

Charles Hagen

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