New York

Geert Goiris


Almost all of the images in Belgian photographer Geert Goiris’s first solo exhibition in New York are extraordinary in some respect, but it is not immediately clear what else connects them. Some, such as his shot of an albino wallaby with delicately crossed paws and eyes narrowed as if against something painful, are gently otherworldly; others, such as the study of an explosion suspended in a cool, green glen, are more patently strange. Elsewhere there is unusual architecture and a deep-frozen sink with a pillar of ice rising beneath the faucet, an image more reminiscent of the surreal narratives staged by artists such as Gregory Crewdson and Anna Gaskell.

Such variety could be used to assert a sort of Gerhard Richter–like attitude toward one’s subjects: All things can be photographed, therefore nothing is more important, artistically speaking, than anything else. But Goiris’s atmosphere isn’t charged with irony, only observation that, while sometimes detached, is nonetheless straightforward and sincere. His strategies have none of the needy cleverness so common in contemporary photography. He throws you back on the images, on uncomplicated compositions with the subject placed in the center and framed by judicious amounts of background and foreground space. Even Toijska, 2002, his unfathomable icy sink, does not seem to make any grand claims for the elusiveness of narrative, although an upturned plastic container marooned in the ice might easily echo Moby Dick or the Titanic. In essence it manages, like the fireball and the wallaby, to be at once natural and strange.

The result of Goiris’s approach is a coolness of temperament and hue, an equivocal path between the everyday and the extraordinary. The exhibition’s loosely unifying theme turns out to be human presence, sometimes gently overlaid on nature, sometimes more vigorously imposed. In the awkward and monumental architecture of Ministry of Transportation, 2003, which depicts the eponymous building in a bleak rural setting that seems ready to rise up and reclaim its territory, this duality is characterized by sharp contrast. In Curonian, 2000, it insinuates itself more artfully, as a sheet of netting seems to disappear into the sere clearing behind it. In E 313, 1999, a towering pile of discarded red highway barriers becomes a landscape feature in its own right, on par with nature, although the movement of the trees next to the inert plastic suggests that nature is the less permanent of the two. The wallaby in Albino, 2003, seems to reside in a natural enough setting until you notice the closely cropped grass and bench. There is an appealing modesty to the way this idea shifts from one image to the next; it could easily feel preachy, but
is altogether more ambiguous. In a statement accompanying the exhibition, Goiris describes his work as “traumatic realism”: photography as evidence of the rupture between two realities, a glimpse of something beyond the normal.

Many of Goiris’s works feel almost familiar, with their meaning contained in that “almost,” and this may be why the least satisfying images in this set are those that depict actual humans instead of their traces. The resonance of human activity is more deeply felt in its absence, no matter how precarious (as in Standing on Ice, 2003) or ephemeral (as in 9 Minutes of Silence—Brussels, 2003) the evidence left behind. When it does feature bodies, his work begins to shape itself into something more self-consciously clever, crowding his gentle ambiguity out of the frame.

Emily Hall