New York

Craigie Horsfield

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

Mounted in black wooden frames, Craigie Horsfield’s photographs are large (ca. 50-by-40 inches) black and white pictures with a narrow, dark palette. They show: in Barcelona, a bullfight, a soccer field in an industrial area, rooftops, a bar frequented by twenty- to thirty-year-olds, and, a long, low ceramic sink; in Poland, teenagers playing basketball, a handsome woman’s face, a young woman with a printed T-shirt, and a factory worker at her machine, staring into the middle distance; in London, a pretty young woman standing naked in an empty room.

This could have been a group of faits divers. Instead we have banalities brought together by technique but lacking the esthetic, poetic, or imaginative unity that informs a created world and a maker’s vision. They have facture but no style. The poses are ordinary, the figures monotonous; the one ambitious figure group is a lump of inarticulate backs, half-hidden heads, vague faces, and a few hands. In other pictures, faces are marked by that sullenness commonly found in portraits by artists who observe few emotions outside their own malaise; Horsfield’s large prints exaggerate the solemnity and disclose the sentimentality of this look.

Together, the size, darkness, and matte finish of these prints evoke charcoal drawings or primarily dark-toned paintings, giving an impression of granularity, as though printed on super-fine sandpaper. But this can’t substitute for touch as we know it in painting and drawing, or in black and white photographs, for that matter, where it is an illusion created in part by the differences in texture among the subjects depicted and in part by emphasis, which in turn is partly a matter of light and scale. The apparent tactility of Horsfield’s pictures (a combination of matte paper and extreme magnification that emphasizes the grain of the negative) is uniform, i.e. the opposite of touch, which results from decision and an artist’s responses to specific areas of surface and/or elements of a work’s imagined/created world. The uniform graininess of Horsfield’s photographs, together with the dingy light and consistent largeness, minimize touch, and thus create an anesthetic effect that turns the imagination away from the world of his pictures.

Thus Horsfield defeats his purpose. “Art” he writes, must “speak in the most intimate and direct ways . . . of the good . . . of feelings, of the spirit ... without slogans . . . while recognizing the specificity of time and place.” Amid so many ponderous, smooth tropes of “sincerity,” verbal and visual, one longs for a breath of playfulness, irony, even awkwardness—anything expressing authenticity. Yet the leadenness seems intentional. It’s difficult to imagine pictures being, by accident, so pedestrian, blasé, and random yet so tidy and well-behaved. As cocktail party conversation, the exhibition might sound like this:

I saw a bullfight in Barcelona. The matadors were so graceful! And the capes!

Speaking of travel, on my trip to Poland, before the fall of communism, I visited a factory. This female worker, she looked so oppressed!

Aren’t pretty, young, naked girls. . . well, so pretty, young and naked, especially with their clothes off?

Horsfield can make a view: a roofscape full of surfaces and corners, a cityscape full of high-tension wires, pylons, and so on. But these depend on a formula now some four hundred years old: the high, oblique vantage point. The staleness of Horsfield’s images resembles that of tap dancers on TV specials; like them, Horsfield knows the steps and executes them well but without urgency, and his control renders his blandness as predictable as the dancers’ fixed smiles.

Making large prints is now hardly a technical achievement, and rendering the image virtually inert is an artistic failure. Plato was right, there is no Form of the bad, only individual forms more or less remote from the Good; here, it’s an affected alienation from self and world.

Ben Lifson