New York

Michael Huey, China Cupboard (no.39), 2010, color photograph mounted on aluminum, 15 3/4 x 21".

Michael Huey, China Cupboard (no.39), 2010, color photograph mounted on aluminum, 15 3/4 x 21".

Michael Huey

Newman Popiashvili

Michael Huey, China Cupboard (no.39), 2010, color photograph mounted on aluminum, 15 3/4 x 21".

Michael Huey’s “China Cupboards,” 2005–, is a series of medium-size photographs that portray shelves and cupboards stocked with china, glassware, serving dishes, trinkets, and other items whose purposes are not entirely clear. (One gropes for their obscure names: salvers, epergnes, tankards?) These depictions are not straightforward, however; they have been printed in the negative, reversing their colors. So blues become orange—of which there are frequent dense patches, suggesting a collection of delftware—and the whites come up in shades of the gray scale. The shadows around each object bloom into a nimbus, and many things seem to glow from within, like jellyfish under black lights.

This could all easily descend into pure aesthetic exercise, but it does not. Although there are elements that suggest serenity—the still life, the elegant domestic scene, the luminous objects—the serenity sits uneasily on the surface. Huey’s process defamiliarizes the objects to the extent that they become alien, worthy of scrutiny, the reversed colors invoking images from an X-ray or an infrared lens. And the ordinary glass-fronted cabinets, with their gray frames, resemble laboratory shelves, intensifying the analytical air.

There is an overwhelming uneasiness as well, perhaps because such a meticulous inventory of delicate things suggests fear of loss, or, more specifically, the neurotic anticipation of loss. The feeling of memento mori is pronounced but sterile, almost sci-fi, especially in the arrangements of figurines: One composition portrays the items almost disappearing into the mist, and another image seems to fatally degrade like a frame of old, acid-eaten cinema stock. The works play on the way in which photography collapses history, with old objects appearing in new images that seem to be very much at the mercy of time. The effect is reminiscent of Huey’s 2010 exhibition “Houseguests.” Mounted at Schloss Damtschach, a gallery in Wernberg, Austria, located in a nineteenth-century building, the show featured shots of American interiors from the 1950s with decor based on eighteenth-century European designs.

“The objects forming our inheritance are never mute, constantly murmuring, insinuating, and cajoling,” writes Philipp Blom in an essay for the publication accompanying this exhibition. “We need to imagine an order, a plot, a path through the debris of our kin and our collective pasts.” The objects Huey photographs do not constitute a life’s narratives in themselves, but, as props or accessories, they are witnesses to many of its events—how many conversations take place at table, after all?—and remain a catalogue of taste or aspiration. The X-ray effect suddenly seems less analytical than probing, furtive, secretive, but in the end a visual index is insufficient regarding what we want to know. Indeed, the objects’ murmur remains too quiet for outsiders to distinguish the words.

Emily Hall