New York

Thomas Flechtner

Marianne Boesky Gallery

What to do, if you’re a gallerist, when summer comes around? Throwing together a hodgepodge from the storeroom is always a popular option. Those with a little more ambition might attempt something hipper by engaging the services of a guest curator. Either way, a lighter-than-usual theme is de rigueur. But mounting a solo show remains the exception. If the artist is a current darling you might get away with it; otherwise, the dog days are also something of a graveyard slot (London’s Richard Salmon Gallery admitted as much by titling a show “Bad August” back in 1996). Thomas Flechtner’s recent “Bloom” was entirely consistent with expectations in that it dealt in “seasonal” subject matter but did precious little with it.

That said, the start of the Swiss photographer’s follow-up to 2003’s “Snow” was nothing if not seductive. On large, bright, frameless light boxes, ethereal close-ups of branches laden with Japanese cherry blossoms bathed Marianne Boesky’s front gallery in a whiter shade of pale. Made using long exposures, the stained glass–like Sakura 7, 9 and 11 (all three works 2003) present viewers with blurred veils of white, pink, and green held together by dark branches glimpsed through gaps in the floral cascade. But while they make clear reference to Abstract Expressionism in their allover compositions and painterly look, one would have to be generous to regard the shots’ perfumed sheen as manifestations of even the simplest analysis or other ambition beyond the decorative. Rather, the alignment is a superficial one that feels either wholly accidental or like a halfhearted stab at critical justification.

A little more conceptually substantial are the eight photographs from Flechtner’s series “Sites,” 2002–2006, that were installed in the main gallery. Here, the artist riffs on ever-present questions around our manipulation and commodification of nature, depicting various semiartificial landscapes in which plants are categorized and corralled according to market (as opposed to natural) forces. Site 13, 2002–2006, is typical. It pictures, in flat light, an undulating field spotted with small trees. The ground is almost completely covered with a bright patchwork of flowers in various shades of white and pink, divided into sharply—though, to the untrained eye at least, arbitrarily—delineated sections. A low fence running across the foreground underlines the point that this is nature as filtered through short-term economic interest.

In her catalogue essay, critic and poet Cherry Smyth dubs Flechtner “the William Eggleston of the natural world.” While the assertion does get at the fact that many of Flechtner’s images provide a visual pleasure equivalent to that of Eggleston’s, it seems more than a little over-the-top. And the cool eye Flechtner casts on his subjects is very different from Eggleston’s approach, in which detachment is mixed with the moody and the gothic. Flechtner might be more productively compared to clear influences like Bernd & Hilla Becher and Andreas Gursky, but these obvious references are, somewhat perversely, omitted from the text in favor of Hiroshi Sugimoto and even Cecily Brown.

Site 17, 2002–2006, in particular makes the latter parallel clear: A landscape composed of four aligned but slightly discontinuous images, it details a highly schematized system of regulated growth in the widescreen, deadpan manner that has become the default mode for art photography. Only Site 25, 2002–2006, in which cut tulips, arranged by color, are piled in the foreground of a misty field, presumably awaiting collection and packaging, and Site 1, 2002–2006, in which evidence of human intervention—in the form of carving—along a range of hills becomes apparent only with close observation, come close to rescuing the show. In striking a slower, subtler balance between the depiction of natural and artificial elements—in asking us to scan each image as closely as a “Where’s Waldo?” illustration—Flechtner makes a case for the continued validity of his style. But slick production values notwithstanding, “Bloom” was ultimately, if not wholly “bad,” fatally bland.

Michael Wilson