New York

Eileen Quinlan

The fact that nearly all of Eileen Quinlan’s photographs are still lifes has often been obscured by the variety of other interests evident in her work. Critics have, perhaps too often, related her images to the historical precedents set by early modernists such as Edward Weston, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Alfred Stieglitz (notably his “Equivalents” series of 1925–34). But Quinlan’s 2004–2007 “Smoke and Mirrors” series, for instance, which documents a large number of arrangements of the titular materials, alludes not only to the legacy of early modern abstraction but also to the Bush administration’s secretive war strategies in Iraq. These lush images, at the same time, do not shy from their co-optation of commercial photography and graphic design. The imperfections of dust and scratches on some of the photographs, moreover, point up Quinlan’s concern with the mechanics of producing a photograph in the studio.

Her latest exhibition, “Nature Morte,” focused explicitly on still life, prompting a reconsideration of the obsessive desire to reconfigure and document a limited set of inanimate objects in the earlier series. The new, mostly black-and-white images address the still life’s age-old connection to death and the funereal, in part through allusions to the increasing obsolescence of film—with, for instance, several works made from negatives that had been soaked in a water bath. The somber atmosphere was most plainly conveyed, however, in images such as Women’s Business, 2010, which depicts a torn photograph of artificial flowers covered in dirt, and After Winter, 2004–10, a small photograph portraying an ashy collection of more flowers in front of a tombstone. This second piece, the only unambiguously representational image on view, stood out as a reminder that Quinlan’s photographs have been particularly devoted to examining the lifeless as if it were lifelike—and, however incongruous it may seem, to the way in which photography grants objects a nearly talismanic presence. The exhibition marked an extension of Quinlan’s investment in the photograph’s aptitude for unnerving sleights of hand, already apparent in the “Smoke and Mirrors” series. The Rose Is Finished (for Kate), 2010, for instance, a precisely constructed and almost symmetrical labyrinth composed of strokes of pink paint on angled mirrors, seems deeply uneasy—an effect won, paradoxically, through its kinship with high-gloss advertisements.

Indeed, the show as a whole exuded an undeniable energy in spite of the pervasive sense of deterioration and decay. The origin of this liveliness, surprisingly, seems to lie in the new paths opened up by Quinlan’s decision to focus on death. In an oft-quoted statement in which he responded to the so-called death of painting, Steven Parrino said, “Death can be refreshing, so I started engaging in necrophilia . . . approaching history in the same way that Dr. Frankenstein approaches body parts . . . Nature Morte [ . . . ] I am still concerned with ‘art about art,’ but I am also aware that ‘art about art’ still reflects the time in which it was made.” Quinlan may be onto something similar, but rather than mining art history, her new photographs consider her own previous work, as if processing it through a distortion loop. They offer something refreshingly new.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler