New York

Elliott Schwartz

Jayne H. Baum Gallery

Even on the level of object identification, Elliot Schwartz’s photographs are puzzling. He depicts various odd things—a broken light bulb, a model of Rodin’s Thinker with a wedge-shaped head, a pair of bent wires—framed in such a way that they’re obviously the “subjects” of the pictures, even if it’s not quite clear what they are. Many of these images bear a nominal relationship to portraiture—there’s something that looks like a rotting baseball with a cigar in its mouth, while what might be two sticks of dynamite become a pair of eyes beneath a checkered scarf. Printed in various sizes, in black (or blue) and white and scattered irregularly across the wall, Schwartz’s photographs look like a display of trophies in some mutant universe.

Much of a photographer’s skill, whether at depicting events or making portraits, consists in taming the uncertainty of the visual world, through lighting, framing, and editing. Schwartz, however, seems to relish the ambiguity of photographs, the fact that in order to mean they must be interpreted.

His images are occasionally murky, at least on the level of description; in other cases it’s clear what the pictures are of, but given the unusual nature of the depicted scenes, their apparent verisimilitude proves unsettling. An Interest in Aviation, 1989, shows an airplane turned on its back, its wheels still extended. Schwartz, however, flips the image and hangs it upside down, so that the wheels again point down as ordinary experience would dictate. But what then is the ground doing above the plane? The aircraft seems to cling to a ceiling of earth. Schwartz’s photographic manipulations generate uncanny images that depend upon the camera’s authority for their effect.

Several pictures offer narrative implications that are so understated that a viewer may simply pass them by. In one photograph three men in white shirts and ties walk along an overpass, two on the sidewalk and one in the road. Whatever storylines such images suggest are overwhelmed by the nebulous meanings that emerge from the arrangements of pictures. These allusive constellations of signification challenge defining categories, pitting photography’s descriptive powers against those of language, by which we usually interpret and define the world. In Schwartz’s shadow-world meaning is put at risk, robbed of its certainty. What remains is the central role interpretation plays in creating, not discovering, significance.

Charles Hagen