New York

Karine Laval, Quarantine #24, 2020, C-print, 30 × 40".

Karine Laval, Quarantine #24, 2020, C-print, 30 × 40".

Karine Laval

Laval Studio/SOCO Gallery

This was, you might say, an entirely homegrown exhibition. It obeyed Voltaire’s great admonition “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Let us cultivate our garden); for an artist, following the adjuration might mean shouldering the responsibility not only for making the work but for presenting it to the public with little endorsement and intermediation of dealers, curators, or other gatekeepers. For several years, Karine Laval has been making photographs in public and private gardens throughout Europe and North America for her ongoing series “Heterotopia,” 2014–. When the coronavirus pandemic confined the artist to her Brooklyn home, she understood that she, too, had a little garden she could photograph, so she set to work with her camera. And since processing labs were off-limits, Laval outputted the results on a home printer, which, among other things, limited the prints’ size to seventeen by twenty-two inches. What made things more interesting, however, was her decision to exhibit eleven of the works (two of which she realized at a larger scale by printing them across four sheets) in the backyard where they’d been shot, straightforwardly affixed to the enclosing wall and fences without frames or glazing, exposed to the rain and heat. The photos turned out to be surprisingly resilient, at least when I saw the show. The only weather-induced change consisted of some very fine mottling to a few of the surfaces (but this was the day before tropical storm Isaias hit New York, so who knows how they fared afterward).

The photographed garden didn’t bear much resemblance, in the end, to the one in which it was installed. For one thing, the flowers that were in copious bloom in the spring when the pictures were taken were mostly gone by the height of summer, when the exhibition opened—just a few hardy yellow roses remained. But even if the works had been shown with minimal delay, the differences would have been dramatic, at least for a viewer unaided by magic mushrooms: Laval’s lush, close-up, decentered compositions are flooded with unnatural-looking acid color and dense with superimposed imagery. The artist did not achieve these effects through double exposure, as one might have initially thought, or digital manipulation. Laval’s technique became self-evident in only some of the images: She had used sheets of mirrored and polarized glass to create the quasi-psychedelic reflections that folded the chromatically exuberant imagery back onto itself. The colors made me think of the hypnotic blurred hues of the field of flowers in the right channel of Pipilotti Rist’s famous 1997 video installation Ever Is Over All. But here the swirling effect that Rist conveyed was temporally compressed into single images, simultaneities that condensed moments and movements into one. Laval’s garden was haunted by the ghosts of its own recent past.

Back in 2016, Laval spoke in an interview of having “wanted to present [her] work in relation to architecture” to create immersive experiences, which she’d already been doing with video and sound in dedicated exhibition spaces. But the humble architecture of an urban garden, the vicissitudes of weather, the sky’s changing light, and the richness of the still photographic image turned out to be sufficient means for her to construct a gorgeous and sometimes slightly eerie playground for perception. That she titled the presentation “The Great Escape” offered a delicious irony: At a time when even walking out of the house might have seemed fraught with peril, she’d made an ecstatic getaway to her own backyard.