New York

Michael Spano

Laurence Miller Gallery

In work shown last year, Michael Spano seemed to be following closely in the Surrealist tradition. He applied the technique of solarization, in which some parts of the image are flipped back into negative tones, to traditional Surrealist subjects: the female nude and (in a series of pictures of his wife) woman-as-romantic-mystery. Here, though, he tilted the equation by using nondescript photographs of more or less ordinary street scenes as the basis for his solarizations.

Portrait of a Man, 1986, for example, shows a bareheaded old man on the street; the background is thrown out of focus and the tones of his coat have been reversed by solarization, leaving only his head clearly readable. In The Book, 1986, a man wearing a walkman is confronted by a woman in a headscarf, apparently an Iranian soliciting signatures for a petition. The scenes depicted in these photographs are familiar ones, but, in addition to solarizing them, Spano often heightens their sense of strangeness by keeping only a narrow plane in focus, reducing both background and foreground to a blur. The space of the picture is disrupted, with parts of the background flattened and thrust to the front while others remain rounded and distant; people and objects appear to dissolve into clouds of light. These techniques lift several of the scenes out of the everyday and turn them into unsettling dramas in which the central figure or incident is isolated, transfixed against (or within) the expressive murk of the background. In White Hat, 1986, the white hat worn by a man striding toward the camera glows eerily against a solarized background of parked cars and high rises. The man and even the hatband are denatured by the solarization and focus effects, leaving only the hat unaffected, floating in the air like a dream token.

Too often, however, the portentous style seems inappropriate to the pedestrian images to which it is applied. Both the scenes and the photographic genres are too familiar to be particularly revealing. Spano may be trying to underline the inherent strangeness of the city, or to transform the everyday into the marvelous. (He adds a further inflection to the pictures by printing them on a creamy textured paper.) But the style frequently overwhelms the commonplace photographs, and comes to seem like a veneer that can be used to dress up any photograph no matter how ordinary, like loud wallpaper in a drab room. I found myself thinking more about the effects of solarization and narrow focus than about the pictures on the wall. In emphasizing style over meaning, the photographs seem more closely related to the work of the Photo-Secessionists than to Surrealism. Spano’s previous reworkings of Surrealist themes attracted a great deal of attention for their seductive beauty. In moving away from their easy allure, he has embarked on a risky but potentially much more rewarding course. At least in this group of work, though, he has yet to find a blend of subject and treatment to match the power of his earlier pictures.

Charles Hagen