New York

Thomas Ruff

In his photographic series of portraits, houses, and stars, Thomas Ruff reprises genres that have dominated the medium since its infancy but with an irony that undermines their apparently straightforward descriptive meanings. Regardless of a plethora of details, Ruff’s photography remains mute. Whereas Paul Nadar created sensitive character studies, Ruff produces what appear to be enormously enlarged passport photos or mug-shots drained of psychological affect. Whereas Maxime Du Camp and Félix Teynard lovingly dwelled on the ruins of ancient Egypt with their melancholic resonances, Ruff dispassionately records dreary contemporary apartment complexes, unmodulated by significant detail.

Ruffs most recent series of Ektacolor photographs derive from existing black and white observatory negatives documenting stellar constellations. The photographs are characteristically enormous, and if Ruff’s work demonstrates one thing, it is that any photograph is bound to look impressive if it’s large enough. Where the portraits invite a trancelike perusal of pores, hairs, and ruptured capillaries, the constellation shots provoke a contemplation of the heavens dotted with gleaming pinpoints of light. The former aggrandizes the minute; the latter embraces infinity, eternity, the heavens, and the void. Though the stars are top-heavy with symbolic baggage, casually alluding to science, religion, philosophy, and poetry, Ruff doesn’t care specifically about any of this. What is important is simply that tautologically, they mean that they are meaningful.

Ruff’s work insistently doubles back on its stringent and reductive formal logic; the photographs are always, literally and figuratively, all surface and no depth. The limitations of the medium—as a scientific tool, a register of psychological affect, or as straight documentation—become the subject matter; the imagery persists only as motifs in a formal game. Like the portraits, which take their cue as much from Chuck Close as from August Sander, Ruff’s stars recall monumental painting and the romantic enormity of nature, but they invert the usual logic of the sublime; his photographs quite literally describe a world in which people are huge and the universe is manageable, and the political implications are as disquieting in the United States as in a newly reunified Germany. Whether these starry skies are taken as awe-inspiring glimpses into the transcendental void or a fancy photo-wallpaper is ultimately entirely up to the viewer.

David Rimanelli