New York

Adam Fuss

Cheim & Read

“Home and the World,” Adam Fuss’s third solo exhibition at Cheim & Read, showed his most austere work yet. The artist whose photograms have previously incorporated rabbit entrails, ejaculate, and cow livers hasn’t forsworn corporeality altogether, however: One encountered, on the floor of a small side gallery, a giant daguerreotype of an upclose vulva. Fuss disavows any provocation, erotic or otherwise, averring that his interest in the image had to do with “the architecture of the entrance.” This surprisingly sound plea for formalism aside—the frontal splay of tissue is desensualized to the point of being clinical, its placement indeed evoking an incidental portal—the balance of the show found Fuss in high symbolic mode.

For someone who has staked a claim on the big subjects (life/death, man/woman, growth/decay), allegory isn’t new, and the exhibition’s press release was a jewel of referential front-loading. The ten gelatin silver print photograms of snakes on view, it explains, were inspired by the British version of the American board game Chutes and Ladders, called Snakes and Ladders, which the London-born Fuss played as a child; that game evolved from a morality teaching tool in ancient India, in which one pursued nirvana via good deeds; the snake’s status as a token of regeneration and degeneration, and as masculine and feminine, originated with the myth of Tiresias, who discovered two snakes copulating on the ground and, in attempting to disentangle them with a staff, was turned into a woman for seven years; Tiresias passed his serpent-twined staff, or caduceus, to Hermes, the Greek messenger god presiding over life and death; and the caduceus, finally, came to stand as an emblem for the medical profession and its selfsame powers.

Little of this backstory is immediately apparent from the work, and it feels unnecessarily compensatory; far more affecting than the photograms’ possible intertextual spirals is Fuss’s mastery of the method, all the more evident and nuanced now for an eschewing of color. (In the past, Fuss has downplayed his kinship with László Moholy-Nagy, but here he exemplifies the photogram’s import as given by that forefather of the technique: “The photogram can be called the key to photography because every good photograph must possess the same fine gradations between the white and black extremes as the photogram.”) On ample white fields, ebony snakes (Fuss used live ones to make his impressions) cluster and writhe—unfurling as calligraphic sinews in the quasi-abstract “Alphabets” (all works 2010); appearing braided around drawn vertical zips in the “Caduceus” compositions; lying outstretched on a grid of newspaper pages in “Home and the World” (a take on the board game that triggered the series). In this last set, the tabloid sheets have been wetted, rendering both sides simultaneously visible and lending an effect of depth further accentuated by the arabesques of snakes, which become figure even as they appear interleaved with the ground of the grid. Fuss allowed areas of his photographic paper to warp in the developing process, and the resultant blurred areas, in their suggestion of intermittent focus, contravene the medium’s known flatness and impart a somatic subtlety to the play of light and shadow.

Fuss’s long-standing investigation of photography’s earliest means—returns to cameraless procedures in an increasingly camera-less moment—continues in his work with daguerreotypes. On opposite walls, bookending the floor-bound genitalia, were a pair of large-scale daguerreotypes, one picturing an old stripped mattress, the other the same topped with four snakes. Looking into the former, one sees reflected the reptiles in the latter and, of course, oneself—a mise en abyme that, in its implication that no domestic space (even that purposed for reproduction) and no individual are spared contamination and death, is the most convincing instantiation of Fuss’s themes.

Lisa Turvey