New York

Richard Ross

Lieberman & Saul Gallery

Richard Ross is no stranger to dusty corners and out-of-the-way places. Like his previous “Museology” series, which catalogued the strange world of museums, his new photographs again seek to capture the eerie, free-associative chaos created by casually jumbled inanimate objects lost in sepulchral space. This time, however, Ross has turned away from the rarified world of the museum and wandered into the dusty back lots of pop-culture Hollywood. A stuffed horse from Camelot starts at its reflection in the mirror; the flying saucer from My Favorite Martian sits propped beside a hot-dog cart in a North Hollywood garage; and the hats from some long-forgotten Warner Brothers’ musical—bowlers, cockades and parade-caps—stand jauntily at attention on shelf after wardrobe shelf. No longer the furnishings of film spectacle, these and other forlorn objects have been preserved on film as spectacles of another sort, asserting, in Ross’ colorful, handsomely composed fantasies, their own plaintive personalities as objects of past delight and present decomposition. The melancholy they generate is lightened considerably by the intrusion of sci-fi elements (a decrepit gorilla suit, a giant plastic cockroach), as well as by the relaxed surrealism of Ross’ compositions which casually group a child’s toy tractor, for example, with kitty-litter, artificial Christmas-tree limbs, and that forgotten flying saucer. At the same time, the work can be disconcertingly slick. Moments of forced meaning and heavy-handed irony (a looming dusty clock face, a displaced portrait of Lenin) nudge them in the direction of corn. These cluttered images may in fact have as much in common with the world of Norman Rockwell as they do with that of Man Ray or Salvador Dali—sometimes only the blessed absence of a kindly granddad saves them from that sort of commercial banality. (Several of the images will, in fact, run in Life magazine.)

Nevertheless, the images exert undeniable if predictable formal charms. Ross’ Hats, Warner Bros., 1989—three separate images of hats from some long forgotten Hollywood musical—has some of the rhythmical insouciance of a Wayne Thiebaud composition. At best, a work like Horse from Camelot, 1989, with its mirror-play and carefully composed jumble of objects in a cavernous dark space, evokes a pictorial complexity reminiscent of Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

Finally, it is the placement of these objects in the context of back lot warehouses, where dust is disturbed only by the occasional footprint or dropped sandwich wrapper, that gives a final, gentle twist to Ross’ vision; by their implied silence these photographs present us with something approximating—for better or worse—an atmospheric equivalent to the despoiled tombs of antiquity.

Justin Spring