New York

Esko Männikkö

For his recent exhibition “Cocktails,” Finnish photographer Esko Männikkö installed a selection of works from the past fifteen years, intermingling images of animals living and dead, aging Finnish bachelors, ramshackle interiors, and border life in southern Texas. But the show, the artist’s first in the US since 1997, was less eclectic than this list of subjects might imply—the images were drawn together by Männikkö’s social-documentary interest in rural dilapidation as well as by his project’s formal coherence, particularly its emphasis on deep, saturated color.

The photographs, presented in beat-up old wooden frames, which the artist selects to complement each image, were hung cheek by jowl, and this close physical proximity further implied the thematic and conceptual intimacy between them. Marco, 1998, for example, which depicts a young boy whose creased forehead is echoed by the folds of his dirty shorts, was hung beside Sheep?, 1999, a chipped statue of a winged, angelic lion. The conjunction was visually arresting, yet with its emphasis on dignity in the face of neglect, it also teetered on the threshold of sentimentality. Grouped together to convey a loose narrative, Männikkö’s photos are rooted in place—the artist usually spends considerable time with his subjects before he photographs them—while their aesthetic of outmoded, ruined beauty also crosses national boundaries. Whether he’s shooting in Texas or in Finland, he reveals the world to be covered not with a net of high-tech cables but with skeins of peeling paint, matted fur, and broken glass. Nonetheless, regionally specific features from the small US flag in an abandoned storefront in Happy?, 1997, to the Scandinavian Christmas decor depicted in Kuivaniemi, 1991, retain their sense of belonging to a unique location.

Männikkö is fond of symmetry, and often composes his images so that one’s attention is drawn to the exact center. This centering highlights the imperfection of his subjects. It also elevates them, no matter how base they may appear, to the status of the iconic. In Nissan Primera 1, 6 Fantasy?, no date, a dead bird in the street is perfectly aligned in the middle of the road’s painted stripe. The serendipity of so precise a squashing brings to mind Civil War photographers such as Alexander Gardner, who, some commentators have asserted, moved the dead bodies in their battlefield photos to achieve greater pictorial coherence. The clarity of the images recalls Roger Ballen’s photos of rural South Africans, while the photographer’s apparent intimacy with his subjects and his cinematic sequencing evoke Nan Goldin. Like Ballen—and, indeed, like Goldin—Männikkö is drawn to decrepitude, even squalor, although his classicizing compositions can emphatically structure any disorder that his camera witnesses. His animal photos also bring to mind Norwegian photographer Per Maning, whose studio-based work often refers to commercial photography.

Staring out from the crowded walls of the exhibition are large close-ups of horses’ heads. These are cropped so tightly that they become studies in geometry; in Untitled, 2005, a single dark oval is centered against a white ground, every whorl of hair in precise focus. Often bigger than the surrounding photos, the eyes punctuate the installation with bracing simplicity. There were four such works in this show (drawn from the series “Harmony Sisters” [2005]). In each, the eye takes on a different character: In one, the pupil glows blue like a television screen; in another, the image of the photographer is visible as a faint reflection; and in a third, goo puddles along the eyelid. These engrossing—and gross—details resist the romantic conventions of anthropomorphism: Each eye is singular, impassive, and intensely focused, a metaphor for Männikkö’s camera and its sharp, monocular gaze.

Julia Bryan-Wilson