San Francisco

Ari Marcopoulos

Rena Bransten Gallery

The nine color photographs that constituted Ari Marcopoulos’s concise recent exhibition focus on moments drawn from ordinary life, yet a sense of foreboding pervades all of them. Jennifer, Sonoma, 2005, depicts the photographer’s wife (a frequent subject) peering enigmatically from the shade of an outdoor patio. She holds a lotus-shaped bowl as if in the midst of a snack (a bag of barbecue coals is also just visible in the background), and one of her bare legs is marked by a bloody scrape from some small mishap (the Marcopoulos’s lifestyle appears to be of the gritty, outdoorsy, “alternative” variety). At Rena Bransten Gallery, the picture was hung on the opposite wall from Bike Crash II, 2002, a study of a child’s knobby knees, one of which bears a burgundy gash and the ghostly trace of a Band-Aid.

Is there a dark streak running through the artist’s family? The fact that he pictures his sons costumed as ancient deities might lead us to assume so. The backyard folly of Anubis, Sonoma, 2002, finds one boy wearing a large red cardboard mask of the dog-headed Egyptian lord of the dead, while the other eats a snack in the background. The vibrancy of the cardboard pushes it dramatically to the foreground; it appears almost to exist in another dimension, introducing an impression of unreality that shifts the image’s balance of innocence, glee, and menace in an uncertain direction. The discomfort engendered by Sho Ka Wa, Sonoma, CA, 2004, is more direct and corporeal. The portrait, set in a leafy forest, depicts a shirtless boy wearing black feathered wings that are almost the same shade as his thick hair. His head is tilted upward, and because he’s sucking in his breath, his ribs show through his skin, rendering this youthful soul a skeletal figure ready to take flight.

A couple of works here travel far from Marcopoulos’s California address, yet only affirm a consistent feeling of enveloping ennui. Hokkaido 1, 2004, is a wintry image of coastal Japan in which a large rock rises from a gray landscape to loom portentously over the road. As in Anubis, the main subject of the picture—the intricate contours of the boulder—jumps to the front of the picture plane in a way that feels engineered, artificial. In fact the effect is so peculiar that one assumes the image has been digitally tweaked, but the artist says not.

While Marcopoulos has a background in filming and photographing the art world (in the mid-1980s he was the in-house photographer at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, where he had a larger solo exhibition recently), as well as the underground music and extreme sports scenes (as evidenced in the 2002 Whitney Biennial), this show concentrated on quieter, more intimate images. It was a shrewd decision, as his work can seem unfocused when presented in more diverse groupings. Here, the bonds of family provide the thematic glue. And while the subject is well worn—think of Larry Sultan’s lush, nostalgic revisitation “Pictures from Home,” 1992, or Richard Billingham’s raw and arguably exploitative images of his drunk, dysfunctional dad—Marcopoulos observes and puzzles over a uniquely ambiguous, uneasy assortment of roles and characters, his own among them.

Glen Helfand

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