New York

Katy Grannan

Greenberg Van Doren/Salon 94 Freemans

The striking images comprising Katy Grannan’s latest body of photographs—which find her exploring the foggy shores and nondescript interiors of the Bay Area, where she has lived since 2004—constitute her most fully realized work to date. In the past, Grannan has preferred to cast her net wide and survey multiple individuals, but for her current series, she has trained her lens on three specific subjects. The resultant images were divided into series, with two transgendered friends in fusty dresses, Gail and Dale, represented in the show “Lady into Fox” at Salon 94 Freemans, and shots of a dauntless young woman named Nicole making up “Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep” at Greenberg Van Doren.

Together, the photographs’ organizing trope is the boilerplate mythology of the American West as a scene of rebirth or a utopia for pariahs. This is a pretty thin conceit (for one thing, the social types represented by Grannan’s subjects don’t seem unique to the West Coast), though it is perhaps testament to the inertia of our popular imagination that San Francisco still harbors a reputation as a seedbed for counter-culture in the same way that New York’s Bowery district still inspires visions of punks and prostitutes. Many of the photos were taken on a beach, and here that site becomes less a vacation playland or a vision of the romantic sublime than a cipher for the edge of civilization—a muted, purgatorial landscape in which Grannan’s characters find themselves adrift.

Of the trio, Grannan’s most compelling subject is Dale, who, in three separate photos—one taken on the beach and two, in which Dale is disrobed, in an austere home—stares back at Grannan with coquettish contempt. In one, Dale, Southampton Avenue [III], 2007, she is a wan, witchy version of Manet’s Olympia. In another, Dale, Southampton Avenue [I], 2007—perhaps the best photo of the bunch—she displays a coy, gamine demeanor incongruous with her body. Dale’s friend Gail is more elusive, rarely making eye contact with the camera, frequently appearing whimsical, lost, or detached. She seems like she might disappear at any moment.

Nicole, on the other hand, is a mercurial, confrontational model—several subjects in one. She convincingly flits from utterly abject (Nicole, Sunnydale Avenue [III], 2006) to cheesecake sexy (Nicole, Crissy Field Parking Lot [I] and [II], both 2006) to wildly exuberant (Nicole, Potrero Hill, 2006). Nicole frequently appears in ludicrous, uncomfortable-looking poses, but even in her most “vulnerable” portraits, the mask is still apparent, a reminder that range is a poor substitute for complexity.

In contrast to the work of Nan Goldin (or of other such obvious influences as Peter Hujar), the images never make one suspect that the artist and the subject might be friends. Such an “in-the-life” aspect is outside of Grannan’s purview, and it makes the photos seem that much more objectifying—like those of Diane Arbus, another oft-cited influence, though without the obsessive, clinical brilliance of Arbus’s voyeurism. Grannan’s work also at times recalls that of Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tina Barney, Rineke Dijkstra, and Gregory Crewdson. Despite what her detractors may argue, she’s no longer working in the shadow of the Yale clique that catapulted her into early notoriety. But neither is she yet as good—or her voice as distinct—as her many influences.

David Velasco