Posts Tagged ‘Downfall of a dream

20
Oct
12

Review: ‘Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place’ at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 28th September – 11th November 2012

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Installation photographs of the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) from the exhibition Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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Details of one of Gregory Crewdson’s works from the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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“The American middle-class nightmare: nothing is clean, orderly, idyllic, or romantic. In his perfectly staged, hyperrealistic tableaux, photographer Gregory Crewdson reveals the claustrophobic limbo and abyss of spiritual repression that is the typical suburb. Here, hushed-up violence, alienation, isolation, and emptiness are nothing new or unfamiliar, but rather part of the everyday neighbourhood experience.”

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Gregory Crewdson, In a Lonely Place, Abrams Publishing, New York, 2011

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“I have always been fascinated by the poetic condition of twilight. By its transformative quality. Its power of turning the ordinary into something magical and otherworldly. My wish is for the narrative in the pictures to work within that circumstance. It is that sense of in-between-ness that interests me.”

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Gregory Crewdson

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Downfall of a dream: (n)framing the enigma in Gregory Crewdson’s
Beneath the Roses

After the excoriating, unreasonably subjective diatribe by Robert Nelson in The Age newspaper (“Unreal stills, unmoving images” Wednesday October 17 2012) I hope this piece of writing will offer greater insight into the work of this internationally renowned artist. With some reservations, I like Crewsdon’s work, I like it a lot – as do the crowds of people flocking to the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy to see the exhibition. Never have I seen so many people at the CCP looking at contemporary photography before and that can only be a good thing.

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The early series Fireflies are small silver gelatin photographs that capture “the tiny insects’ transient moments of light as they illuminate the summer night.” These are minor works that fail to transcend the ephemeral nature of photography, fail to light the imagination of the viewer when looking at these scenes of dusky desire and discontinuous lives. The series of beautiful photographs titled Sanctuary (2010) evidence the “ruin of the legendary Cinecittà studios, which was founded by Mussolini in the 1930s and is associated with the great Italian film director Federico Fellini.” Wonderful photographs of doorways, temples, dilapidated stage sets with excellent use of soft miasmic light creating an atmosphere of de/generation (as though a half-remembered version of Rome had passed down through the generations) interfaced with contemporary Rome as backdrop. The digital prints show no strong specular highlights, no deep blacks but a series of transmutable grey and mid tones that add to the overall feeling of romantic ruin. It is a pity that these photographs are not printed as silver gelatin photographs, for they would have had much more depth of feeling than they presently possess. They just feel a little “thin” to me to sustain the weight of atmosphere required of them.

But it is the series Beneath the Roses (2003-2008) that has made Crewdson truly famous. Shot using a large format camera, Crewdson makes large-scale photographs of elaborate and meticulously staged tableaux, which have been described as “micro-epics” that probe the dark corners of the psyche. Working in the manner of a film director, he leads a production crew, which includes a director of photography, special effects and lighting teams, casting director and actors. He typically makes several exposures that he later digitally combines to produce the final image. Photographs in the series of “brief encounters” include external dioramas (shot in a down at heel Western Massachusetts town), where Crewdson shuts down streets and lights the whole scene; to interior dialogues where houses are built on sound stages and the artist can control every detail of the production. Influences on these works include, but are not limited to:

David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters), the paintings of Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus (the detritus of her photographic interiors), film noir, psychoanalysis, American suburbia, the American dream, the photographs of Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman and surrealism. Concepts that you could link to the work include loneliness, alienation, apathy, resignation, mystery, contemplation and confusion, identity, desire, memory and imagination.

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Now to the nuts and bolts of the matter.

Another major influence that I will add is that of the great Italian director Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita – The Sweet Life) who shot most of that film on the sets at Cinecittà studios in Rome. It is perhaps no coincidence that Crewdson, on his first overseas film shoot, shot the series Sanctuary at the very same location. Crewdson’s photographs in the series Beneath the Roses are an American form of  “The Sweet Life.” In 1961, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised Fellini’s “brilliantly graphic estimation of a whole swath of society in sad decay and, eventually, a withering commentary on the tragedy of the over-civilized… Fellini is nothing if not fertile, fierce and urbane in calculating the social scene around him and packing it onto the screen. He has an uncanny eye for finding the offbeat and grotesque incident, the gross and bizarre occurrence that exposes a glaring irony. He has, too, a splendid sense of balance and a deliciously sardonic wit that not only guided his cameras but also affected the writing of the script. In sum, it is an awesome picture, licentious in content but moral and vastly sophisticated in its attitude and what it says.”1 The same could equally be said of the Crewdson and his masterpieces in Beneath the Roses. Crewdson is in love with Fellini’s gesture – of the uplifting of the characters and their simultaneous descent into “sweet” hedonism, debauchery and decadence using the metaphor of downfall (downfall links each scene in La Dolce Vita, that of a “downward spiral that Marcello sets in motion when descending the first of several staircases (including ladders) that open and close each major episode.”)2 Crewdson’s “spectacular apocalypses of social enervation”3 mimic Fellini’s gestural flourishes becoming Crewdson’s theme of America’s downfall, America as a moral wasteland. Crewdson’s is “an aesthetic of disparity” that builds up a cumulative impression on the viewer that finds resolution in an “overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is.”4

Crewdson’s cinematic encounters are vast and pin sharp when seen in the flesh. No reproduction on the web can do their physical presence justice; it is the details that delight in these productions. You have to get up close and personal with the work. His dystopic landscapes are not narratives as such, not stills taken from a movie (for that implies an ongoing story) but open-ended constructions that allow the viewer to imagine the story for themselves. They do not so much evoke a narrative as invite the viewer to create one for themselves – they are an “invitation” to a narrative, one that explores the anxiety of the (American) imagination, an invitation to empathise with the dramas at play within contemporary environments. For me, Crewdson’s extra ordinary photographs are a form of enigma (a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation), the picture as master puzzle (where all the pieces fit perfectly together in stillness) that contains a riddle or hidden meaning. Clues to this reading can be found in one of the photographs from the series (Blue Period, see detail image, above) where Crewdson deliberately leaves the door of a bedside cupboard open to reveal a “Perfect PICTURE PUZZLE” box inside. The viewer has to really look into the image and understand the significance of this artefact.

Another reading that I have formulated is of the transience of space and time within Crewdson’s series. In the disquieting, anonymous townscapes people look out from their porches (or the verandas are lit and empty), they abandon their cars or walk down desolate streets hardly ever looking directly out at the viewer. The photographs become sites of mystery and wonder hardly anchored (still precisely anchored?) in time and space. This disparity is emphasised in the interior dialogues. The viewer (exterior) looks at a framed doorway or window (exterior) looking into an scene (interior) where the walls are usually covered with floral wallpaper (interior / exterior) upon which hangs a framed image of a Monet-like landscape (exterior) (see detail image, above). Exterior, exterior, interior, interior / exterior, exterior. The trees of the landscape invade the home but are framed; exterior/framed, interior/mind. There is something mysterious going on here, some reflection of an inner state of mind.

In his visual mosaics Crewdson engages our relationship with time and space to challenge the trace of experience. His tableaux act as a kind of threshold or hinge of experience – between interior and exterior, viewer and photograph. His photographs are a form of monism in which two forces (interior / exterior) try to absorb each other but ultimately lead to a state of equilibrium. It is through this “play” that the context of the photographs and their relationship to each other and the viewer are “framed.” This device emphasises the aesthetic as much as information and encourages the viewer to think about the relationship between the body, the world of which it is part and the dream-reason of time.5 This intertextual (n)framing (n meaning unspecified number in mathematics) encourages the viewer to explore the inbetween spaces in the non-narrative / meta-narrative,”and by leaps (intuitive leaps, poetic leaps, leaps of faith)”6 encourage escapism in the imagination of the viewer. It is up to us as viewers to seek the multiple, disparate significances of what is concealed in each photograph as “felt knowledge” (Walter Benjamin), recalling to mind the sensory data placed before our eyes, something that can be experienced but cannot be explained by man: “the single moment of the present amidst the transience of life and searching for some kind of eternal truth.”7

Finally, in a more adverse reading of the photographs from the series Beneath the Roses, I must acknowledge the physically (not mentally) static nature of the images where every detail of the mise-en-scène is fully articulated and locked down: from the perfect trickle of blood running from the woman’s vagina in Blue Period, to the reflections in mirrors, the detritus of living scattered on the bedroom floor, the dirty telephone, packed suitcases and keys in locks to the desolate looks of the participants that never engage with the viewer. Despite allusions of despair, in their efficacy (their static and certain world order), there is no real chthonic madness here, no real messiness of the capture of death, murder and the wastage of human life (famine, AIDS, cancer or the blood running over the pavement in one of Weegee’s murder scenes for example). This is Fellini’s gross and bizarre LITE. Americurbana “is being addressed with the same reserve and elegance that ensures that the institution – artistic, political, what you will – is upheld and never threatened. It is pre-eminently legible, it elicits guilt but not so much as to cause offence.”8 I must also acknowledge the male-orientated viewpoint of the photographs, where men are seated, clothed, lazy or absent and all too often women are doing the washing or cooking, are naked and vulnerable. In their portrayal of (usually) half dressed or naked females the photographs evidence a particularly male view of the world, one that his little empathy or understanding of how a female actually lives in the world. For me this portrait of the feminine simply does not work. The male photographer maintains control (and power) by remaining resolutely (in)visible.

Overall this is a outstanding exhibition that thoroughly deserves that accolades it is receiving. Sitting in the gallery space for an hour and a half and soaking up the atmosphere of these magnificent works has been for me one of the art experiences of 2012. Make sure that you do not miss these mesmerising prophecies.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the artist, Gagosian Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Photography for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Special thankx to Director of the CCP Naomi Cass and Ms. James McKee from Gagosian Gallery for facilitating the availability of the media images. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

All photographs © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Installation and detail photographs Dr Marcus Bunyan

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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“In a Lonely Place presents selections from three major series by Gregory Crewdson, Fireflies (1996), Beneath the Roses (2003-2008), Sanctuary (2010) and, presented for the first time, the video Field Notes (2009). The exhibition title comes from Nicholas Ray’s 1950s film noir of the same name, one of many films that inspired Crewdson. In a Lonely Place is evocative of an underlying mood-a quiet feeling of alienation and loneliness that links the three series selected by curators Estelle Af Malmborg, Jens Erdman Rasmussen and Felix Hoffmann. In a Lonely Place presents the first comprehensive exhibition of Crewdson’s work in Australia.

In Beneath the Roses, anonymous townscapes, forest clearings and broad, desolate streets are revealed as sites of mystery and wonder; similarly, ostensibly banal interiors become the staging grounds for strange human scenarios. Crewdson’s scenes are tangibly atmospheric: visually alluring and often deeply disquieting. Never anchored precisely in time or place, these and the other narratives of Beneath the Roses are located in the dystopic landscape of the anxious American imagination. Crewdson explores the American psyche and the dramas at play within quotidian environments.

In his most recent series, Sanctuary (2010), Crewdson has taken a new direction, shooting for the first time outside the US. During a trip to Rome, he visited the legendary Cinecittà studios, which was founded by Mussolini in the 1930s and is associated with the great Italian film director Federico Fellini. Crewdson discovered fragments of a past glory, with occasional unexpected views of the surrounding contemporary Roman suburbia. Cinecittà is a lonely place deserted by the film crews who once used the site to recreate settings of ancient Rome, medieval Italy and nineteenth-century New York.

In the intimate photographs of Fireflies, Crewdson portrays the mating ritual of fireflies at dusk, capturing the tiny insects’ transient moments of light as they illuminate the summer night. Unlike the theatrical scale of the Beneath the Roses and Sanctuary series, Fireflies is a quiet meditation on the nature of light and desire, as the images reflect not only upon the fleeting movements of the insects in their intricate mating ritual, but upon the notion of photography itself, in capturing a single ephemeral moment.

Gregory Crewdson received a BA from the State University of New York, Purchase, New York in 1985 and an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut in 1988. He has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. He is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art, Yale University. Gregory Crewdson is represented by Gagosian Gallery and White Cube Gallery.”

Press release from the Gagosian Gallery website

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Installation photographs the series Sanctuary (2010) from the exhibition Gregory Crewdson: In A Lonely Place at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne (Photos: Dr Marcus Bunyan)

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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1. Crowther’s review first published in The New York Times, April 20, 1961. In Fava and Vigano, 105 quoted in Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

2. Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

3. Sultanik, Aaron. Film, a Modern Art. Cranbury, N.J: Cornwall Books, 1986, p.408

4. Richardson, Robert. “Waste Lands: The Breakdown of Order,” in Bondanella (ed.), Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism, p.111 quoted in Anon. “La Dolce Vita,” on Wikipedia Footnote 30 [Online] Cited 20/10/2012.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Dolce_Vita

5. Bacon, Julie Louise. “Liquid Archive: On Ambivalence,” in Liquid Archive. Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), 2012, p.119

6. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “The Museum – A Refuge for Utopian Thought,” in Rüsen, Jörn; Fehr Michael, and Ramsbrock, Annelie (eds.). Die Unruhe der Kultur: Potentiale des Utopischen. Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2004. In German.

7. Kataoka, Mami commenting on the work of Allan Kaprow. “Transient Encounters,” in Broadsheet: Criticism, Theory, Art Vol 41.3, September 2012, p.174

8. Geczy, Adam. “A dish served lukewarm,” in Broadsheet: Criticism, Theory, Art Vol 41.3, September 2012, p.177

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Centre for Contemporary Photography
404 George St, Fitzroy
Victoria 3065, Australia
T: + 61 3 9417 1549

Opening Hours:
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm
Sunday, 1pm – 5pm

Gagosian Gallery website

Centre for Contemporary Photography website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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