New York

Gregory Crewdson

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

The art of photography resides not in the ever-evolving camera but in the imaginative record of what lies before its lens. (Such was the case, at least, before the advent of digital photography and Photoshop). Two modes of photographic transcription now prevail. One is journalistic, the candid record of the “factual.” The other is “artistic,” bound to the photographer’s arranging of the subject matter itself. Such arrangements may vary widely, say, from Man Ray’s cheeky pornography to the awesome stage sets of Gregory Crewdson’s vastly admirable tableaux vivants—large, staged, and eerily static.

Crewdson’s art, his ambitious conflation of a world both observed and invented, naturally hews to the cinematographic—an association he fully acknowledges. He scopes real-world settings like a location scout, but then inflects this scenery with an uncanny poetical symbolism and psychoanalytical subtext. What are these people doing behind their house, digging holes? Crewdson’s Deep Thoughts may be recondite (in this he reminds me of Bill Viola), but they are successfully conveyed to some forty collaborators—a producer, a production designer, production assistants, electricians, lighting technicians, artisans of all stamps—who then resolve the master’s exacting imperatives. In this complex effort, Crewdson’s crew recalls the studio workshops of Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, and Takashi Murakami.

Their sheer CinemaScopic polish aside, the photographs in Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses,” 2004–2007, a large selection of which made up this exhibition, suggest in their extraordinary lighting the work of a present-day Josef von Sternberg. But, unlike Sternberg, who cobbled together perfectly lit mise-en-scènes of a generic Morocco or Spain for Marlene Dietrich vehicles, Crewdson creates perfectly lit, fictive portraits of blue-collar New England towns—in this instance, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, although it could be, really, any number of places where, long ago, the wooden frame house gave way to cinder block and aluminum siding.

Like somnambulists inhabited by aliens or numbed by mayfly shifts of fortune, the town’s residents scarcely register the wide-screen soap opera in which they are either stars or supernumeraries. For Crewdson, cataclysm is registered as a vagrant narrative of love, death, pregnancy, age, isolation, explosion, or arson. Mills close, towns die, while men and women, in some photographs nude, reach out to comfort one another or gaze into mirrors in Hopper-like trances while the gods chuckle. Crewdson’s passion for the New England town (not to say its mystifi ed sullen townies) beggars comment as place and person settle into melodramatic truce with the encroachments of a distressed landscape and a withering loss of hope and dreams.

Crewdson’s most arresting gift is his Magrittean hypersensitivity to light within light—street lamp, flashlight, traffic signal, automotive headlight or taillight, neon sign, conflagration, or the simple table or desk lamp, abloom within the sunset, the twilight, incipient dusk: diaphanous passages as metaphor for what-used-to-be, artifice blushing within the gloaming.

Crewdson’s digitally enhanced illuminations tend to equalize foreground, middle ground, and the far distance. Seemingly projected forward toward the viewer, these virtual locations mitigate the illusion of depth in favor of the diffuse and the smooth. Such allover muffling was a consistent feature (not necessarily positive) of Big American Painting as it moved from Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran through Abstract Expressionism, and is perhaps most strongly realized today in the Big Contemporary Photograph.

Robert Pincus-Witten