New York

John Brill

Kent Gallery

Several generations after the pictorialist aesthetic, which first asserted photography’s claim to the status of art, was banished by straight photography’s insistence on the objective rendering of form and the unmanipulated shot, blurry, evanescent images have resurfaced as a major mode of picture making. John Brill’s recent series “ennui” constitutes a self-conscious attempt at a contemporary pictorialism. The photographer has said that this body of work “continues and takes to the extreme my exploration of the subjective and equivocal nature of meaning. . . . Eschewing and ultimately freed from the representational and narrative functions presumed to inhere in photographs generally, these minimal scapes exist only in the photographic print.” Rather than define his medium as the capturing of unique, real-time encounters between photographer and object—Brill turns the print into a unique object of subjective expression.

Like those of the original pictorialists, many of Brill’s images directly invoke painting, especially those prints from infrared film on which the photographer has used a gold toner. What is distinctive about the work is Brill’s ability to capture a range of textures that approximate very different styles of facture. One image dissolves into dots of color that resemble a Seurat viewed in extreme close-up; the photograph next to it has a much more even texture, with tonal registers of grayish blue that go from lighter at the top to darker at the bottom with an even darker horizontal band in the center. The broad bands of variegated tone, implying a ground and horizon, lend the image an abstract, landscapish quality reminiscent of mid-’50s painting. The shimmering surface of another photo mimics the energy of frenzied brushwork, recalling the vortexlike swirls of Lee Krasner’s work, for instance.

If Brill wants to extend the range of associations we bring to the photographic image, he nevertheless employs a technique firmly rooted in the tradition of “fine art” photography; the twenty-six photographs in “ennui” are all the result of exquisite, small-edition printing. But even at his most traditional, Brill involves the viewer’s expectations as constitutive elements of his production. His toned silver prints have such strong formal affinities with landscape photography that we inevitably search for and construct natural images in them. In one, we imagine a funnel cloud swirling out of a highly textured, gray-white sky toward an inky dark ground, while another invites the reading of a tree being battered in a storm. What Brill latches onto here is the viewer’s assumption that a photograph is the trace of an object itself. While he successfully implicates our desires in the production of meaning, the viewer is left with the question of whether his project is ultimately more sentimental than subversive. The baroquely theatrical chiaroscuro of the prints, the old-fashioned framing, the references to painting, and the inchoate character of the images harken back to a romantic notion of subjectivity that is perhaps irrelevant now, while digitization transforms the relations between photography and “reality” in ways far more provocative than such nostalgic interventions.

Andrew Perchuk