Gerrard Albanese

Traver Gallery | Seattle

Gerard Albanese’s tight, expressionistic, black and white photoessays investigate the relationship between the urban environment and the people who move through it. In an exhibition last year, Albanese showed photographs of lone pedestrians seemingly driven along by an invisible force. The subjects—with heads bent forward, eyes downcast, and attention bent on some unknown destination—look as though they are on the verge of moving into or emerging out of shadow. The high contrast between harsh white light and deep shadows, and the formal instability of these pictures looks analogous to the way the towering monolith of the city reduces individuals to animated mechanisms, driven by instinctual reflexes.

The new photographs are less stunning visually than the artist’s earlier work, but psychologically a good deal more insightful. They take on meaning cumulatively from parallels and leitmotifs that run through them, rather than from the integrity of each individual photograph. People are less often seen moving in or out of the darkness. When they are, they seem to be confronting it in some way, as in Man With Large Rings, 1989, or breaking free of it, as the skipping motion suggests in Person Gesturing To Camera Walking, 1988. People, to Albanese, are no longer phantoms driven by a deterministic metronome. Some are not moving at all. In Woman Against White Wall, 1989, the subject’s stiff verticality makes her seem nailed to the ground.

Here the solitary individual doggedly exhibits the hint of a personal style, entertains a private moment, or stands his ground in some way. A figure bursts from shadow with a Paul Newman-like swagger (Fashionable Man Walking, 1988); an adolescent walks away from us, lost in his problems (Young Man Walking Against Fancy Concrete Block, 1988); a sleeping man physically stakes out his territory (Man In Striped Cap Laying In Shadow, 1988). The clean geometric regularity of brick, marble, cement block, glass, or metal is still a formidable backdrop to these photographs. But charged-up by some inner pulse, each foreground figure engages in a contrary banter with his surroundings. This generates just enough self-consciousness to disclose the slick but empty physicality of the materials, which constitute the forbidding monumentality of urban construction. By contrast, the subject’s facial and postural attitude, his sloppy or super-cool clothes, the graffiti that is seen, even the trash, take on a capricious but more solid physical presence. Even the image of a styrofoam cup on snow (Melting Snow and Styrofoam, 1989), holding its own against the bleak pavement, nags at one’s consciousness. Albanese sees humanity as something other than the reclamation of the old aura-filled notion of human dignity. Instead, he views it as a native refusal to conform to the tenets of one’s environment, a spontaneous and wily perversity of spirit.

Jae Carlsson