New York

Saul Fletcher

In all the hullabaloo about new, airport hangar-like galleries, no one has considered how much they overwhelm quiet work, often formed out of concerns for intimacy, vulnerability, moments of doubt, and consisting of lovely tiny messes. Small things matter. Saul Fletcher’s beautiful photographs garner a good deal of their poise, tenacity, and air of longing by being rigorously small (often five-by-five inches). His palette is sharp, but soft, as if bled of something, making his images appear pale and assured and completely idiosyncratic. A slightly rusted white door; painted walls in upper and lower blocks of (almost peeling) colors of roan and slate, beige and dove, which hearken to Mark Rothko or Brice Marden only for the woefully pedantic; trunks, somewhat shiny, of palm trees against a faux-stone wall; people in their empty rooms; objects that somehow don't make a room lived in, a picture of Elvis reflected in a mirror against striped wallpaper the palest shade of happiness, heating pipes in the corner; the photographer himself, thin, shirtless, and masked. What connects all these things is Fletcher’s sensibility and eye: he is keenly in tune with the hard-to-describe, even vague moments that govern most of daily life, and his eye catches such moments by recognizing their “slant” obtuse nature and keeping things “off” enough to be like life rather than just a representation of it.

A few of these photographs, particularly an image capturing a part of Fletcher’s arm, suggest the early, exuberant work of Robert Mapplethorpe, an eroticism done in microtones that shimmer in parts of the body depicted but even more so in the banal objects those body parts bump up against. Even more strongly evoked are certain Intimist painters, Edouard Vuillard and Gwen Johns if they lived on the dole, listened to ambient or jungle, and kept managing to find existence (in Elizabeth Bishop’s words) “awful but cheerful.” In Untitled No. 3 (body builder), 1997, a bodybuilder negotiates some abstract, modernist plywood desk, with white walls and a telephone jack his accompaniments. The sharp lighting and brushed-silver perfections of Mapplethorpe are nowhere to be found (despite the Mapplethorpe-like subject); instead Mr. Muscle is tan and has a light case of acne across his upper chest (depilatory irritation or steroids), his body has edges like that of the desk in front of him but softer; his head is bowed, his face expressionless or resigned.

Fletcher’s details of fabrics, wallpaper, and articles of apparel have the precision of someone who pays attention to fashion and style but skips the nattering over fashion/art by taking the best of whatever he needs from both and chooses to go elsewhere with it, somewhere hushed, abstractly sexy, and strange. His keen photographs—like light, water, and air, which remain even when taken for granted by many who forget what they would be without them—are a record of that elsewhere.

Bruce Hainley