New York

Elisa Sighicelli

Cohan Leslie and Browne

As the gulf between painting and photography is increasingly crossed and recrossed by artists using approaches from digital manipulation to new economies of scale, Elisa Sighicelli bridges the gap with the oldest tricks in the book: luminosity and immanence. On first viewing the works in the London-based artist's US solo debut, one might think they were mounted on stretched canvases. Even after one notices the concealed cords running up from the baseboards and realizes these are light boxes, they hardly read as such. The artist selectively paints the backs of the photographs before mounting them to limit and direct the effects of the low-intensity illumination. When this works—and it usually does—the light from behind the image, the light on its surface, and the elements in the image itself are balanced in a way that recalls the use of glazes in Renaissance painting to produce the effect of luminescence.

The six works in this series are compositionally consistent. All but one show a domestic interior photographed at a very low angle from the floor; the meeting of floor and wall forms a horizon that neatly divides the image into blurry lower half and focused upper half. Light penetrates the room around curtained windows or through half-open doors and shines on the highly polished floors. Parlour (all works 2002) is a group of five images hung side by side so that the floor-wall horizons form a single line, with shadows and reflections of furniture providing the drama. In one image the carved detail of a divan’s base is mirrored in the floor so that it rhymes with the corner ornamentation of a table, which leads to shimmering spiraled glass table legs and onto the filigree of a window grate. In Red Gingham a checked tablecloth stands in for the floor, while light creeps almost palpably through a door standing ajar. Through her subtle manipulations of the translucent surface, Sighicelli achieves remarkable painterly effects of chiaroscuro and sfumato without violating the photographic integrity of the images.

The scenes are stripped down to a few evocative elements: the gently splayed leg of a Chinese table, the black backs of two chairs, the reflection of a potted plant dying into striations of light on a polished floor. Because the pictures are shot from and along the floor, the details are monumentalized, as in our earliest childhood memories, which often involve the undersides of things. These prearticulate recollections tend to register as pure sensation; part of the pleasure of Sighicelli’s work is bound up with this kind of memory. Her images encourage immersion and transference by not insisting on any one reading; the spaces represented in them are immanent, not fixed.

We are told that the Turin-born Sighicelli made these images in Cuba, and without the low angle of view and subtle manipulations they might be mistaken for that kind of exoticizing photography that presents the colorful, dilapidated interiors of Old Havana as metaphors for the failure of socialism. Sighicelli’s works have nothing to do with that genre, but there is one work in the show that might link Turin to Havana. The image features a fleshy mottled-red sheer curtain (or shroud) before which rises an ornate, faux-everything headboard. In a cleft at its apex is nestled a secret but exalted crucifix.

These works are interiors to be mused on. They are not absorptive of someone else’s life or social situation but reflective of viewers’ own memories. That’s not to say the images are neutral. Balancing as they do in this liminal zone is a tremendously willful and difficult proposition. What they achieve at their best is a rare form of estrangement without alienation.

David Levi Strauss