New York

Antonio Caballero, Sandra Chávez, fotonovela para la revista “Capricho,” ca. 1972/2010, black-and-white photograph, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8".

Antonio Caballero, Sandra Chávez, fotonovela para la revista “Capricho,” ca. 1972/2010, black-and-white photograph, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8".

Antonio Caballero

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Antonio Caballero, Sandra Chávez, fotonovela para la revista “Capricho,” ca. 1972/2010, black-and-white photograph, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8".

Antonio Caballero likes photographs of mostly handsome young people in conditions of melodrama—romance, marriage, adultery, plane crash. In his world rather more than in mine, every gesture is freighted with meaning, as if capitalized, a phone call becoming The Phone Call, a train ride The Embarkation. A woman standing in the street, looking at dresses in a shop window, strikes a pose that is literally statuesque—she might be modeling for the Venus de Milo—while a girl getting into a car curls herself elaborately and unnecessarily around the steering wheel like a cat. Between 1963 and 1978, Caballero, a native of Mexico City, made five hundred fotonovelas, romances and melodramas resembling comic books but realized with photographs rather than drawings. In other words, he orchestrated casts of, what to call them—actors? models? posers?—in scenes he shot with a still camera, then strung the images together to tell stories. This show comprised a tiny selection of the thousands of photos he must have taken.

It’s tempting to liken Caballero’s carefully staged tableaux to the photographs of Cindy Sherman and her many followers, but he was working in a popular genre closer to the movies that inspired Sherman than to her distanced take on them. (In fact, the history of the fotonovela is entwined with the movies; editions were once published as print versions of hit films—photo novelizations.) Also, the presentation of his photos in a Chelsea gallery, like the work of a young graduate of the Yale art school, rather distorts them—to print them big and beautiful, and to show them as isolated images instead of as parts of a story, was not the original idea. There are real gains in this treatment, though, since it emphasizes the qualities of individual pictures. As demonstrated in this carefully chosen group, Caballero’s staging, his costumes, his use of locations, his framing, are all lovingly managed and visually rewarding.

In any case, even if Caballero is a very different kind of artist from Sherman, he can be discussed in similar terms if we choose, and a reader of Judith Butler’s writings on the performativity of gender might relish these pictures and the aura of artifice with which they infuse the male and particularly the female roles they portray. Closer in spirit to the pictures themselves, though, and to their not-so-subtle air of unreality, might be the ideas of Susan Sontag, in some ways foreshadowing Butler’s, in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” A number of Sontag’s observations of camp art seem apposite here: “the spirit of extravagance”; “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’”; the feeling of seeing “everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” “To perceive Camp in objects and persons,” Sontag wrote, “is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” If we’re looking for local echoes of Caballero’s work, then, we might think beyond Sherman to theater and film, and to people like Jack Smith and Charles Ludlam—though they, too, were very different kinds of artists from him, and artists who in their own lifetimes won no more than cult followings in New York. How strange and wonderful that Caballero’s fabulous mannerisms should have proven emotionally convincing for a mass audience.

David Frankel