New York

Davide Balula, Untitled, 2007–2010, color photograph, 13 1/4 x 10". From the series “Walls Meet Walls,” 2007–2010.

Davide Balula, Untitled, 2007–2010, color photograph, 13 1/4 x 10". From the series “Walls Meet Walls,” 2007–2010.

Davide Balula


Davide Balula, Untitled, 2007–2010, color photograph, 13 1/4 x 10". From the series “Walls Meet Walls,” 2007–2010.

Upon entering Davide Balula’s recent show, your first notion might have been that the forty-odd images hung in a line at eye level (all Untitled, from the series “Walls Meet Walls,” 2007–10) made up another instance of “abstract photography.” Some works brought to mind James Welling or Eileen Quinlan, and others seemed like pastiches of the midcentury styles (Rothko, Newman) from which this recently much-hyped genre borrows its claims on our attention. Yet, perhaps indicating an oblique connection to more distant precursors (Moholy-Nagy, Rodchenko), the implicit dichotomy of abstraction and representation was quickly undone as two dimensions turned into three: The images—more or less candidly, depending—in fact depict commonplace details of the contemporary physical-architectural world. We see perpendicular walls meeting a ceiling, for instance, a wall turning a corner, or what might be a staircase forming planes of color intersected by fuzzy lines.

The photographs by necessity also emphasize what is involved in the act of capturing a detail of the world in a photographic print. (“Raw and cropped” is how the artist, in an interview with Artlog, refers to these digital photographs, noting that their vivid hues are “the result of the interpretation of the camera.”) The distorted coloration, the framing to fit a portrait format, and the low-resolution blurriness all demand that one take into account the circumstances of these images’ production. The ready assumption would be that Balula selected sections of preexisting photographs that lent themselves, in retrospect, to such repurposing.

This was, that is to say, a grand act of undoing initial assumptions. The narrative that evolved here was twice revelatory, in equivocal, even contradictory directions—uncovering, on one hand, that what at first seemed abstract was mimetic representation, and, on the other, that the mechanisms of digital photography have turned these representations back into a loose geometry of lines and colored planes. What is behind each photograph is a) physical reality, in the form of architecture and b) the “material” (in this case, digital) process, and also, crucially, c) the human intervention of selection, finely tuned to a surprisingly broad range of easily recognizable artistic or pseudoartistic lineages—from tropes of abstract painting and photography to a Blair Witch Project–style basement or the corner of a Necker cube.

Balula’s preoccupation with the link between artworks and the built environment—and how artworks can jiggle that connection—was also evident in the artist’s 2009 show at Fake Estate in New York, for which he displaced sections of the tiny gallery’s wooden floor with plaster, and mounted the floorboards into the wall. Noteworthy as well is that Balula, who is also actively a musician, organized a tap dance performance at that exhibition (archived on YouTube); he has said that the photographs in “Walls Meet Walls” are likewise “ready to be danced or interpreted by a musician.” There is rhythm in these images, too.

With such thoughts in mind, those who wandered into the second gallery found, under office-style white fluorescent lighting, two pairs of colored pencils jammed into electric sockets low on kitty-corner walls. The interpretive looking demanded by the front gallery here emerged as the first stage of a one-two punch. Having fine-tuned viewers’ detective skills by nurturing the puzzle-solving mentality demanded by the transition between two and three dimensions—from abstract iconography to architectural detail (most images took half a second, some a few seconds, some forever to work out) and back again—Balula upped the ante, using the lingering aftereffect of that multistable perception to lend an intensity to the speculative interaction of pigment and electric grid. Given the kind of mental exertion required to parse the images in the first gallery, visitors were here prompted to embark on a flight of fancy about infusing color into a hidden world thick with underground cables. The whiff of hokeyness was partially offset by the lesson learned: We must hold open both options of the binary choice between what we can see and what we can only imagine.

Alexander Scrimgeour