Los Angeles

Kevin Hanley, On the Floor 2, 2020, ink-jet print on Plexiglas, museum board, 23 1/2 × 28".

Kevin Hanley, On the Floor 2, 2020, ink-jet print on Plexiglas, museum board, 23 1/2 × 28".

Kevin Hanley

Around the mid-1990s, Kevin Hanley became known for a kind of photograph that greeted its viewers as deceptively casual, seemingly captured while the artist wandered about in a state of distraction. Under prolonged scrutiny, however, its ostensibly random arrangement would begin to disclose a secret determination, every outwardly incidental element—an architectural detail, item of clothing, or personal accessory—bristling with cryptic import. In an ongoing series begun in 1995, Hanley presented these pictures at a modest scale, just above the snapshot standard, isolated against larger monochrome fields that played upon a color within a shot, highlighting one aspect of its composition for special attention while also drawing it out of its illusory depths and into registration with the self-disclosing flatness of late-modernist painting. The play between the prosaic record keeping of the tourist and the aesthetic refinement of the flaneur was everywhere in evidence in this new body of work, which was tellingly presented within a gallery that also hosts a CBD dispensary. Hanley has long been invested in the image as a means of deranging the senses, to paraphrase Rimbaud.

The locus of every photograph on view, as the gallery statement informed, was the meeting hall of a fraternal order that had been decked out with the festive paraphernalia of a birthday celebration. The pictures featured these somewhat generic embellishments—balloon clusters, hanging string lights, an automated LED disco ball, smoke-machine haze, rippling curtains of Mylar strips hung over doorways, etc.—as waging a losing battle against the dour resistance of the wood-paneled room. Good cheer was evidently in short supply: Just one or two stationary silhouettes appear in the distance of a print titled Upon Entrance (all works 2020), while some disconsolate phantoms huddle around a banquet table in On the Floor 2. The only other human presence that could be made out anywhere was that of a baseball-capped DJ who sits dutifully at his station, weary eyes illuminated by the cold glow of a flat screen, his shadow cast ominously across a deserted dance floor (In the Corner). Although his face is largely hidden behind the computer, some gray stubble is clearly visible on his cheek—an indication that what was being commemorated here might not have been the springtime of our years. The relentlessly downbeat atmospherics everywhere on display sounded an almost comical note, a gallows humor perfectly attuned to the “It is what it is” desperation of our current moment. Yet this ode to futile revelry, which was actually composed just before the lockdown, did manage to pack in some surprises of a subtler sort.

Hanley’s photographs all come courtesy of the new model iPhone 11 camera, which is equipped with a host of self-correcting features, notably the much-promoted “night mode” that allows this apparatus to draw from near darkness shapes and colors that previously would have been blasted out by flash. Beyond their status as social documents, these pictures described the curious rapport that obtains between different orders of technology: those that are designed to produce delirious effects and those that reproduce these effects no less, and perhaps even more, deliriously. The makeshift nightclub turned subaquatic one moment, as though filled with bioluminescent organisms, and the next evoked the latest views from the Hubble Space Telescope. Plumes of tinted smoke reached through sinister space like some cosmic protoplasm, a primal soup of data particles stirred to life by computational optics. Containing a degree of resolution and chromatic supersaturation that far surpasses our visual capacities, these images were further estranged in their presentation. Printed, minus white ink, directly onto transparent Plexiglas sheets that are floated inside their frames just inches above a bright backing surface, they emanated light—like most images do today—but also caught shadows. The faint graphic stutter produced as the image is projected behind itself comes as a welcome reprieve from black-box calculation; changing in response to time of day and to the viewer’s position, it reminded us that the main event is that of looking right here and now.