New York

Craigie Horsfield

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

Like anyone who is doing anything interesting, Craigie Horsfield uses his medium to escape the tedium of self-expression. The man has spent quite a bit of time in bleak environments, in London and in Poland. His subjects are empty lots, and friends in sparse dreary rooms staring deep through the camera. The images are black and white, large and lonely. They are matte-finished. The large formats both pull you in and repel you with a physicality not so common to this kind of contemplative photography, which usually isn’t about imposing its presence in the room. A party scene strikes you as soon as you enter the gallery; the front figures look “normal,” but when you look at them for a while, you wonder whether some of the individuals in the rear are not melting down privately into Breugelesque freaks. (Klub Pod Jaszczurami, Rynek Glowny, Krakow. February, 1976., 1991). Although the party is hopping, the picture emits a stark sense of solitude. Shot from a high angle, each figure contorts in casual festivity. Horsfield reworks the images ever so slightly, so you begin to doubt whether they are in fact photographs. His banal subjects are released by this slight doubt into the freedom of subdued oddity.

These are slow photos. The atmosphere hovers in them like stale air. Among other things, they evoke the cooking odors of an old apartment building. Lacking in freshness, they give you the time to absorb them with the diffidence and inevitability with which you would sink into a shabby waiting room in a bus station.

Retreat Place, East London. November 1983., 1991. At night, a parking lot. A row of cars stares up at an apartment building lined with terraces that are lit up in the dark. The terraces are those depressing kind that go in one continuous band around the floor, like the external corridor of some detention facility. There are no people. The people are home. The high angle makes it look like a stage set for nothing. The people live with this barren view and the photograph is barren. Through this doubling of barrenness, some kind of plenitude comes out.

Rather than seeking out objectivity or informed sterility as in the standard post-Modern critique of both being and representation, Horsfield is relentlessly sincere. He throws the shadow of photography back onto reality, so you get a palpable feeling that even if his subjects were “there,” you would still feel their palpable absence, and your own. Rather than slices of life, these images are elegies to an impossible present. The images are expansive and drab; they retroactively expose a hole in the familiar that was always there, and give us a kind of wistful thrill. To recognize, that is.

Rhonda Lieberman