New York

Wijnanda Deroo

Between 1988 and 1992, Dutch photographer Wijnanda Deroo trawled New York City’s Lower East Side for fragments of the not yet gentrified neighborhood’s Jewish history, photographing its obscured and crumbling synagogues. In 2004, she was commissioned to document the Rijksmuseum’s prerestoration state, arriving at a sequence of desolate interiors that reflect a century of wear and tear. Considering these two projects, made more than a decade apart, simultaneously is to be struck by how unerringly Deroo has managed to invest empty spaces with emotional authority. The artist’s recent exhibition showcased a set of sixteen large photographs of vacant rooms from her series “Interiors,” 2005–, a body of work that might, given the predominance of overly designed domestic decoration in the media today, suggest a glossy take on the fashionable and the illustrious. But on closer inspection, these shots are entirely consistent with the sensibility that Deroo has evinced throughout her career.

“Interiors” is likely to draw comparisons to the work of Candida Höfer, not only because the two share vaguely similar palettes, but because they also have a comparable geographic reach. Höfer’s focus on cultural heritage, however, is much more strident than Deroo’s, which (without feeling willfully obscure) seeks out history’s neglected corners. And unlike the topically similar recent work of Dayanita Singh, in which the photographer’s technical skill seems to leach out almost all emotional resonance, Deroo’s images, shot in deeply saturated color, retain their subjects’ humanity. A more apt comparison might be with William Eggleston; the top half of Deroo’s Brahmavihara Indonesia, Bali, 2005, could be a Southeast Asian cousin to Eggleston’s Red Ceiling, 1973, in which the hot hue of the room is loudly amplified and sharp geometry helps to define an otherwise enigmatic space.

The presence of people in Deroo’s pictures is implied—by the open door and pair of slippers in the green-tinged Kraton Kanoman, Cirebon, Indonesia, 2005, or the forlorn, deflating balloons in Blue Marlin, Party Room, Puerto Rico, 2006—not stated outright, yet we never miss it. Each scene hints at egress—a gauzy window in Adler Hotel, Green Room, Sharon Springs, 2005, a Deco stairwell in Queen Mary, Staircase, 2007. Each implied interaction focuses the viewer’s attention on the details of the space: a crookedly hung Japanese print, a stained mattress, a vacuum cleaner sitting beside a stage.

Deroo is fascinated, as are many of her contemporaries, with the romance of decline. She pictures the remnants of colonial architecture in Indonesia and the slow pace of life in a cowboy-hat store in rural Kansas, where a mirror reflects little but scrap wood, a broom, and some empty hat hooks. The Sharon Springs sequence is particularly poignant. Known in the nineteenth century for its hot springs and wealthy summer residents (the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts, and Oscar Wilde among them), and for catering to affluent New York Jews in the twentieth, the village now resembles little more than a pit stop on the Borscht Belt nostalgia tour. Deroo’s shots of the decaying ballrooms and guest chambers of the Adler and Columbia hotels belie the former glory of these grand resorts: glory long receded before their eventual closure in 2004. It is Deroo’s ability to look back at something departed and find resonance in its subtle residue that captivates.

Eugenia Bell