Josh Brand, Face, 2010–14, mixed media on photographic paper, 6 × 4".

Josh Brand, Face, 2010–14, mixed media on photographic paper, 6 × 4".

Josh Brand

Misako & Rosen

Josh Brand, Face, 2010–14, mixed media on photographic paper, 6 × 4".

In his 1981 essay “The Cancerous Image,” the writer, critic, and photographer Hervé Guibert narrates the tale of a photograph he stole from someone’s home by hiding it beneath his coat. The purloined image showed an unidentified young man gazing soberly toward his unknown photographer. The writer’s unfolding relation with the print quickly evinces his obsession with and wholehearted belief in photography’s capacity to stir he spirit: “The photograph became the boy and the back of the photograph became the boy’s back. . . . And my affection for it became more and more abstract as the paper became covered with dust. I looked at it without seeing it.”

The anecdote demonstrates how the delineation between index and abstraction can be tenuously guided by memory and desire. In his exhibition “Face,” New York–based Josh Brand presented fifteen photographs made over the past decade. Many of the works were produced over several years, during which time the artist layered ink, dyes, and mixed media over the photos’ increasingly hazy surfaces. Other prints evoke transience and death through straight representation. Brand’s fluid photographic output has primarily centered on abstraction, sometimes crafted as unique photograms. But affections and desires like those described by Guibert were conjured by Brand’s framed works here through the very way his images more often approximated representation.

Five small prints neatly spanned one gallery wall. Three of them showed a coyote cranium and were aptly titled Skull, 2010; Skull and Mirror, 2010; and Skull and Mirror, 2012. Examined serially, the images appear to rotate around the bony relic in a studied fashion, the tender memento mori inexorably referencing Roland Barthes’s reading of photography as a reminder of death. It’s fitting that the other two straight photographs in the show, both titled Person into Room, both 2005, are blurry representations of a solitary male figure beside a wall, gazing absently, his face concealed. Though ostensibly living, the figure takes on a lesser presence than the detailed views of coyote bones.

Brand’s painted photographs were mounted across adjacent and opposing gallery walls, and, despite their predominantly abstract splatters, stains, and scratches, seemingly sought to accord representational value with titles such as Person, 2013; Face, 2010–14; and Window, 2011–14. Face foregrounds lyrical strokes and paint dashes in shades of charcoal, poppy, and salmon against a turbid, atmospheric mass of pale pink and lavender. The photographic layer behind the mixed media appears at the perimeter, where evidence of the chromogenic print’s white border is occasionally visible. Delicate lacerations vaguely resembling two almond eyes and a pointed snout mark the bottom half of the work. Smudgy strokes spread across Window, its upper half a washy shade of burnt eggplant, its bottom showing layers of cerulean beneath milky-white paint. A dark-gray underlying quadrilateral space encloses this painted arrangement, and the hazy appearance of white window casing above it clarifies that the work’s photographic foundation documents an open window frame. Here, as across all the painted works, abstract marks both veil and redirect interpretation of the photographic image.

In their delicate, reticent effort toward guiding interpretation, Brand’s painted photographs effectively pivot back to the manifold feelings abstraction can stir, and thus connect with his earlier works based on the manipulation of light against photographic paper. The additive layers of ink, dye, and mixed media give the works in this exhibition a precious, timeworn quality. In Guibert’s tale, the “cancerous image” ultimately merged with his own flesh, as he began to wear the photograph against his torso and the print’s pigments slowly seeped into his pores. Brand’s photographs, by contrast, maintain their physical distance, but they likewise operate within dialectics of abstraction and recognition, evincing a way of looking that’s not necessarily seeing.

Nicolas Linnert