New York

View of “The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project),” 2011–12.

View of “The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project),” 2011–12.

“The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project)”

Andrea Rosen Gallery

View of “The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project),” 2011–12.

At her foundation’s gallery space in Toronto and elsewhere, Ydessa Hendeles has organized exhibitions that set artworks and other objects, both everyday and extraordinary, in arrangements that blur the line between the curator’s discipline and the artist’s. Hendeles’s intensely thoughtful choices and placements involve intellectual and aesthetic processes of research and selection, as a curator’s do and an artist’s may, and each show responds to its site rather as installation art does, though it’s rare that installation artists give incisive attention to other artists’ work. Hendeles actually calls her exhibitions “curatorial compositions,” a name that teases out their mix of practices. “The Wedding (The Walker Evans Polaroid Project)” was her first, long-overdue exhibition in New York.

The show’s contents were: a group of replica (good replica) Stickley settles, child-size; a replica Stickley table, also child-size; an Atget photograph of a Paris storefront in around 1900, a ghostly girl faintly visible inside the dark doorway; an 1887 Eadweard Muybridge animal study, from 1887, of a stork, half flying, half running; eight photographs by Roni Horn of stuffed birds, dated 1998–2007; eighty-three architectural photographs by Walker Evans—forty-year-old Polaroids, their colors at once rich, strange, and faded; a giant Victorian birdcage, suggesting perhaps St. Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps the Taj Mahal; and a beautifully carpentered nineteenth-century wooden model of a cooper’s workshop, glass ceilinged to allow a view in. Inventoried this way, the show’s materials seem disparate yet present a few themes: the recurring bird imagery, the miniature, the extremely high level of craft, a drift toward the past (on Evans’s part as much as on Hendeles’s)—none of which, however, necessarily relates to a wedding, the show’s title. Nor does this list hint at the power of the installation, with the Atget and Muybridge photographs, and the cooper’s workshop on its Stickley table, set up in an anteroom to the main space, where the settles on the floor and Evans’s Polaroids in a single line around the walls, broken at four points by Horn’s larger images, formed concentric rings around the elaborate birdcage.

Writing that she hoped for an audience “comfortable with metaphor,” Hendeles implicitly set up her show as a puzzle: metaphor for what? That puzzle, however, did not have to be solved, at least not simply: Experienced as metaphor, not allegory, “The Wedding” opened moodily in many directions. Also, though Hendeles insisted, “I don’t try to interpret the work for viewers,” she did supply clues, accompanying the show with a booklet of notes on the objects that insinuated ultimately personal readings under a skin of informative fact. For one example, she linked the domed birdcage to the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy—a connection that I hadn’t made, but that made sense to me, since that ceremony lends itself more to performance in the round than does the Christian ritual before the altar, and it was in the round that the birdcage was installed.

So: We sat on benches whose size returned us to childhood, and so to the past, and looked at a chuppah whose form expressed marriage as a cage. Perhaps the emotional core here was the experience of a child looking forward, with subliminal anxiety, to a future when childhood had gone, like Atget’s vanishing girl—but alongside any such reading, the show’s other poetic layers asserted equal claim, if not as meanings to be read, then as experiences. For me, the images of flight, or of flight denied, played against the rooted solidity of the houses Evans photographed, at least in his distinctive framing of them. These in turn came together with the successive scaling up from the cooper’s workshop to the grand birdcage, a miniature palace or cathedral, and then to the gallery itself—which, certainly not coincidentally, is lit, like the workshop, by a glass skylight. By analogy, then, the gallery too became a miniature, within a vaster space, and here once again Hendeles’s notes pointed somewhere I might not otherwise have arrived: to Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast, which ends, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” a sentence often read as describing the straitness of the gate that leads to heaven.

David Frankel