New York

Roe Ethridge

The first sign of trouble (or complexity) in Roe Ethridge's exhibition “The Bow” comes from its very title. Read the word bow and you assume a meaning (and pronunciation), despite the fact that Ethridge provides no conclusive visual or textual information to support any particular reading, and despite the fact that bow is a wildly versatile word: a verb, a noun, a gesture, part of a musical instrument, an archer's weapon, the front of a ship, a knot formed by two or more loops. Photographs are the same way, of course. We see and assume. For decades, artists have explored the visual-cognitive tic that drives viewers to create, in their minds, a fully drawn reality from fragmentary information, as well as photography's complicity in this scheme.

But pursuing this line of thought was not Ethridge's project—or not his primary one, at least. Instead, Ethridge described himself in a long gallery statement as “working in an ‘editorial’ mode,” following the model of magazines that have a “main theme or cover story,” sections that recur every month, and “something to open the issue and something to close it.” Fine so far. But when you turned to the photographs, you found that their organization was hardly that simple.

The first work in the show was a self-portrait supposedly inspired by the black eye the artist garnered while climbing rocks on the seashore of Long Island's East End. In his statement, Ethridge called the blemish the “perfect” black eye—so perfect it looked “fake,” as if applied with makeup. But his assertion was partially a ruse. You quickly found yourself studying everything but this crucial detail, focusing instead on the expression in Ethridge's other, good eye; the dramatic side part in his hair; the striped shirt peeking out under the crewneck sweater.

The photos that followed this image in sequence forged new “editorial” directions, departed from them, and then circled back around. New York Water (Osgood Pond), 2001, is a photo of pine trees silhouetted by soft light, conjuring both Hudson River School painting and nineteenth-century photographic landscapes by Carleton Watkins and Seneca Ray Stoddard. Pigeon, 2001, departed from the “nature” theme by presenting the most human-dependent of birds in midflight, against a blank white studio background. (The unnatural look of this bird was heightened when we learned from Ethridge's statement that it is a trained rent-a-pigeon from Universal Studios in Florida.) Then came the only digitally manipulated photo in the show, Car Carrier, 2002, in which a ship at sea was duplicated to create a kaleidoscopic pattern, or the illusion of a car-carrier fleet in perfect formation. The rustic theme returned in New York Water (Catskills), 2001, a seemingly black-and-white Ansel Adams–type image (the image is actually in color but offers only subtle contrasts); then another flying pigeon; then another departure in the. form of a color photo of a huge pink satin bow. A third pigeon closed the show.

Ethridge's photos are a little like Christopher Williams's, since both artists provide a wide range of subjects and styles, from one image to the next, within the same exhibition. Unlike Williams, however, there's no heavy-handed conceptual back story. Ethridge's images create their own collective arc. Like his show's title, they initially seemed to say one thing, but their juxtapositions threw the first meaning into question. The photographs functioned in several different senses of “bow”: with the tension of the archer's bow, the lyrical pull of a violinist's bow, and the cut of a ship's bow through water—all arranged and presented, of course, with a deep, theatrical bow to the viewer.

Martha Schwendener