New York

Patrick Faigenbaum

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

In recent years, Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs have begun to undergo subtle if perceptible changes. Their severity has softened, as the imposing architectural settings of his dour portraits of the Italian aristocracy have yielded to the real world and its inhabitants, to the outdoors and to light. In this exhibition of recent photographs, taken mostly in St. Raphaël, a seaside town in the south of France, and in Bremen, Germany, over the last two years, Faigenbaum continues his work as a portraitist, but focuses instead on less formal subjects.

If the artist has eschewed the world of an atrophying aristocracy for a more democratic representation of people going about their daily routines, though, he is no less concerned with the history and genealogy of his subjects, foremost those of his own family. The show is dedicated to his wife Angela and their newborn son Raphael and includes Le 29 Août, Paris, 1998, a before-during-and-after triptych of the child’s birth. But the artist (who was trained as a painter) grounds this personal history in the conventions of painting. Thus, in Angela, Paris, 1998, his wife rests on a blue blanket, recalling Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and child. In other works, Faigenbaum invokes the kinds of pictorial conventions that have traditionally drawn the viewer into the image. Ellen Erwes, Bremen, 1997, presents a woman casually seated at her dining table, the angle of her right arm formally echoing the bottom edge of a picture hanging above her, the tilt of her left arm paralleling the lines of her chair back and leading toward a vanishing point.

With their rich color, large format, and exploration of new geographical and social vistas, these works mark fresh territory for Faigenbaum. But despite the occasional narrative effect or sampling of less orchestrated and urbane appearances, in the end these images of mostly anonymous city dwellers and townsfolk deviate little from the old-master formalist sensibility that has governed his work in the past. In Monsieur et Madame Carlevan, Monsieur et Madame Fiandino, St. Raphael, 1998, for example, the formal framing of the figures isolates the subjects and denudes them of intimacy and immediacy. Even when he attempts to capture more natural effects, the poses of his subjects almost always suggest some sort of universal condition: The anonymous models become timeless genre figures. Such is the case in Bremerhaven, 1997, a view of people strolling down a path toward the water, past others who sit on a bench looking out at the horizon.

While Faigenbaum has begun to embrace “autobiography” in his work, this direction is merely an extension of his previous concerns with the enduring bonds and temporal passage of family. The purposely impenetrable veneer of his earlier images of the Italian upper class, emblematized by the sitters’ frontal poses and the hard opulence of marble-columned rooms, lent these aristocratic portraits a sense of insularity and distance. They read as a grisaille of stationary, often depersonalized souls glimpsed, formally, in their ancient, cold, palatial homes, their stiff, sometimes awkward bearing a reflection of their history and obligatory social position. The technically impeccable printing and keenly observed pictorial conventions served his former work well. In these more casual views of everyday life, form overtakes content, as the burden of history or the heredity of style no longer function as an intrinsic part of the subject.

Mason Klein