- Mia Ruyter
Laura Letinsky's photographs at Donald Young
(through Nov 5) are elegant and refined, but with a treacherous undercurrent. Her earlier photographs, like those she
showed at The
Renaissance Society in 2004, recalled seventeenth century Dutch vanitas,
the still life compositions of Cezanne, and modern Italian design. They more
clearly referenced domesticity. Rotting
fruit and dirty dishes felt like failure and disappointment in the personal
sphere. The images in this exhibit,
more like a mash-up of Russian Constructivism and Pop Art, go deeper and wider,
exploring the power of appearances to mislead.
The current exhibit at Donald Young
is comprised of seven large images of table top still lives, and two room
interiors. In the still lives,
small bits of food and disposal packaging rest on white tabletops. The subtly shifting light on the table,
walls, and floor create dynamic abstract compositions of white and gray shapes.
The images are formal studies of light and shadow, shape and pattern, but they
are also depictions of banal objects. A single cherry, a small pile of pits, and empty stems pose
on the back edge of a white table.
Without the cherry, pits, and stems, the image could be paintings by Kasimir Malevich
- white on white polygons compositions.
The discarded fruit,
however, is more reminiscent of Wayne
Thiebaud, after the orgy of sweets is over. In another photograph, the abstraction is barely interrupted
by an empty clear plastic container with dregs of chocolate pudding in the
crevices, the spoon resting in it, and the transparent lid barely visible
behind. Most of the image is
in various shades of gray, except for a shaft of light that creates a white
vertical rhombus. A vague shadow defines the horizon line of the back edge of
the table, emphasizing the flatness of the space. In a third image, a crumpled paper bag, maybe from
McDonald's, from a fast food restaurant, a paper napkin, some vibrant mustard
stains, a half a cherry tomato oozing seeds and a single leaf of lettuce spills
along the edge of the photograph.
And the take-out bag, printed with black and white tomatoes and a stripe
of bright red, is visually continuous with the red of the real sliced cherry
tomato and the dark splotch of the baby romaine leaf. The fluorescent red jumps from the bag to the tomato,
pulling the eye down the picture plane.
Clearly that tomato and leaf did not come from this to go bag, but they
are connected through their placement and color. In each of the images, the field of gray and white geometric
shapes is dotted with small objects that would normally be considered garbage. They
are pop art icons in a field of abstraction.
It is easy to look at the photos
and think of them as formal studies of value and shape. However, looking closer, the shabby
studio table with chipped corners, the rough patched wall, and institutional
tile floor disrupt the neutrality of abstraction. A black and white tomato on a take-out bag is matched up to
a real tomato. Smears of red on a paper towel could be ketchup or paint, it's
hard to say. The contrast between the first impression and the obvious reality create
the feeling of having been tricked.
The perfection you thought you saw is actually shabby and worn and
useless and possibly unhealthy. The dysfunction is hidden in plain
The persuasiveness of Letinsky's
photographs disguise the worthlessness of the objects. Even when they are the center of
attention, we can forget how useless these objects are, because they are so
beautiful. But their beauty is not
intrinsic to themselves - it is dependent on their context. The historical references - Malevich,
Warhol - are interesting, but don't make them beautiful. What makes them beautiful is the magic
that Letinsky weaves around them using light, color, balance. Formal composition makes them
beautiful. The beauty lies in the pure pleasure that we experience when seeing
something that affects us, that appears clean and new and orderly. And the beauty is highlighted by the
foul aftertaste when that attractive object turns out to be spoiled.
Laura Letinsky: To Peach closed last night, November 5th, at Donald Young Gallery