New York

Jean-Baptiste Huynh

Sonnabend Gallery

For ten years, French photographer Jean-Baptiste Huynh primarily made portraits, reading, with a 6 x 6 cm Hasselblad camera, his subjects’ facial expressions, their skin colors, and their suggestions of intimacy in order to bring the other in close. Now, in “Twilights,” “Mirrors,” and “Meteorites,” the three series he debuted in his first solo show in the United States, he focuses instead on panoramas and objects, investigating the distance between the individual and the universe, and offering a serene meditation on death.

In “Twilights,” 2008, the dispersion of sunlight across horizons suggests the subtle boundary separating human life from nothingness. In Twilight V and Twilight VII, glimmers of taupe appear along the bottom edges, creeping up into black and blue fields, respectively, through delicate gradations of pink and orange. In Twilight XLVII, strips of light blue over darker blue are barely perceptible, subtly coming in and out of view. Most of the twilights were photographed at the extreme points of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres—Greenland, South Africa, Chile—where the skies are particularly clear. The light in these places, in its brilliance and transparency, allows one to gain an exceptional sense of the infinite; the eye can push out to where mystery becomes total, since the view is expansive and uninterrupted.

The “Mirrors,” 2007–2008, portray antique Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Egyptian, and Etruscan mirrors dating from 1500 to 2000 BC that had been buried along with the deceased, to accompany them on their voyage into darkness. But these objects have lost the capacity to reflect; their surfaces have been corroded by oxidation; time has extinguished the possibility of giving back an image, and the faces that were once shown in them have long since disappeared. In “Meteorites,” 2008, Huynh drastically shifts time backward. He photographed these small fragments of extraterrestrial material to bring us into contact with the origin of the universe. If we are made of the same material as the stars, as some scientists argue, then these could, in theory, hold our “kin.”

Both the mirrors and the meteorites are shown at the center of large square prints against deep black backgrounds. While such a presentation maximizes the subject’s visibility and implies objectivity, here it only provides a foil for the indeterminacy at the heart of Huynh’s subjects. Nothing is as it seems. The mirrors, symbols of private space, intimacy, and the reflective capacity of the self, seem like weightless planets suspended in sidereal darkness. In contrast, the meteorites, through the artist’s skillful manipulation of light, which makes their coarse skin seem to vibrate, hold a sculptural monumentality. Their presence has the roughness and silent majesty of archaic sculpture. Even the skies seem abstracted, their coloring impossible. This general ambiguity leaves the sense of reality in suspension, hovering between the private sphere and the infinite.

The most interesting element in Huynh’s work is precisely its fearless movement into the territory of introspection, through subjects that impart a sense of impermanence. In the absence of unambiguous answers about the meaning and nature of what can be represented, the work produces a series of dichotomies, leading us along the thresholds between darkness and light, life and death, the real and the transcendent.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.