New York

Jan Groover

Robert Miller Gallery

At a time when many photographers are primarily concerned with subject matter, Jan Groover’s insistence upon the centrality of the formal, visual aspect of the medium is salutary. As she remarked in a handout accompanying this show, “It is the forms and the attitudes and the space of things which make meaning for me.” Nevertheless, in the work presented here, Groover edges increasingly toward the theatrical, presenting tense arrangements of objects that are associatively as well as formally evocative within a shallow, stagelike space. The backgrounds are painted in muted pastels and carefully lit in order to heighten the sense of drama, of incipient action. We wait for the actors to come on stage; or perhaps the objects themselves will start to act and to speak.

The implicit narratives in these pictures do not necessarily contradict Groover’s formalist stance. Groover’s work has always contained identifiable objects, tchatchkes of different sorts—onion skins, pliers, a statuette of a baseball player—and here she includes pears, plaster hands, and fragments of architectural molding. But whatever associative importance these items have has for the most part (though never completely) been eclipsed by their formal qualities.

In fact, in large measure, it is the formal dynamic that gives these pictures their narrative thrust. Groover’s scenes are like Modernist stage tableaux with the objects as absurdist props. In this series, references to the human presence such as hands, or in several works a small Robert Wilson like chair that implies a seated observer, are more frequent. Through such devices Groover increasingly breaks down the separation between the viewer outside the frame, and the world of objects inside.

Like any good stage designer, Groover realizes that each formal device carries with it an emotional color. The effect is surrealist, not only in the sense that all photographs propose intensified, hyper-significant realities but, more specifically, in the sense that, like Salvador Dali, Hans Bellmer, or Marcel Duchamp in his Etant donné, Groover works within a narrow theatrical space to focus attention on the uncanny irrational logic of their juxtapositions. Like the Surrealists, too, Groover celebrates the secret life of objects, the sense—especially pronounced in photographs in which the animate and the inanimate are rendered equivalent at the level of appearance—that the world of things is not simply a stage on which people act, but that things have their own meanings and intentions, their own potential for action. This is a staple of photography, from Robert Fenton’s Crimean War image of the roadway littered with cannonballs, to Walker Evans’ tableau of the washbasin and towels of the Gudger family. Groover’s lushly colored compositions extend this tradition; though, with their painted pears and dramatic lighting, they forgo plainsong and opt for the operatic, the grander the better.

Charles Hagen

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