New York

Heji Shin, Baby 1, 2016, ink-jet print, 23 × 30".

Heji Shin, Baby 1, 2016, ink-jet print, 23 × 30".

Heji Shin

Real Fine Arts

Heji Shin, Baby 1, 2016, ink-jet print, 23 × 30".

The genre of portraiture has different looks and different functions, ranging from the high finish of heads of state to the languor of lovers lying in bed. Both deliver the sense of a person with some inner life, some history and position in the world, assembling some image of him- or herself in front of the gaze of another. So can one make a portrait of what we might call the “just almost born,” a thing whose head is jutting out into the world, but whose body is still in the womb, its sex unrevealed, its language a far ways away? (My feeling is probably not, that such an image would be something else.)

For her recent exhibition at Real Fine Arts, Heji Shin presented seven large-format photographs of just this subject; she called them Baby 1–7 (all works 2016). The images came about through an extensive process: Shin reached out to expectant mothers, mostly in Germany, and convinced them to let her photograph their births. (The women were promised more typical baby photos in exchange.) Then, she patiently waited for the women to go into labor. All of these photographs depict the same moment of childbirth—after crowning, but when no more than the infant’s head had been revealed. This focus on the head—and sometimes on what we can almost call a face—is what brings portraiture to mind, but other genres also come into play, including horror and sci-fi. There are more specific echoes from art history here, too, especially and unavoidably Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866. Shin’s work is not some cool citation of this canonical work, though, as much as it is an effort to grapple with the same primal fact. Almost in defiance of Courbet’s compliant scene, rendered in lush oil paint, Shin’s bloodied, occasionally gruesome tableaux appear riven with some idea of sin or crime or self-inflicted harm (a number of the almost-children look strangled). This is the origin of the world, Shin seems to say. The Romanian writer E. M. Cioran wrote of the “trouble with being born,” but here it looks more like murder.

Courbet is “world-historical,” yet Shin also responds to more recent models in art. In the last few years the influence of the British artist Josephine Pryde has begun to surface in the work of a number of mostly female mostly-photographers, ranging from Rose Marcus to Dena Yago and occasionally Michele Abeles (I’m thinking of the photographs of hands clutching various devices, receipts, and tags in Abeles’s recent show at 47 Canal in New York). Shin belongs to this cohort as well, which is characterized by what one might call an aggressive, near-point-and-shoot sensibility. Scenes of daily life—of going out at night, using the ATM, gazing at “cute” animals—are cast under a cold eye. It can be flat-footed in the best way. Subjects are often offered in parts only to be sutured together somewhere between the frame and the screen (which more and more seem to be one and the same). Pryde’s works have famously focused on birth and motherhood, and the influence of these pieces is evident in Shin’s show, but not in the form of anxiety. Rather, Shin takes Pryde’s work and makes it literal, overtly and painfully biological, if only to test out what it might look like to make an existential claim. She takes the question and makes it too much.

I wanted to say that she makes it real. Is this real? I wondered when I saw these works. Yes, this is real! (And a real riposte to the infatuation with a certain kind of Brooklyn baby.) This happened. These babies were born, and yet the photographs have no trace of documentary about them. Context has been meticulously cut out. We don’t feel like we are anywhere really in front of these scenes. Soft focus dissolves rooms and onlookers, such as the doulas, doctors, and nurses. The photographs’ white mats and stained-maple frames do some kind of distancing work, too (as do the three crude “political” sculpture-tchotchkes on pedestals that you see when you first walk into the gallery). Minus the specifics, we are asked to confront the horrible head of being, a kind of tortured universality, not the family but the fuck you of man. Can I say that it might be one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time?

Alex Kitnick