In a recent article on Places, Belmont Freeman wrote about the dissolving line between reality and representation in contemporary architectural photography. Digital imaging technology has become so powerful that it can be hard to tell whether a building exists in the world as concrete and glass and steel, or as a bunch of ones and zeros in the ether. Even if the building exists, how do we know which material flaws and idiosyncrasies have been photoshopped into unreal perfection? As an artist, I can’t speak to the professional consequences for architects, but Freeman got me thinking about the gap between the built environment and its representations. In this gallery, we present three artists whose work explores the world at different levels of remove from reality. Unlike architects, whose “real work,” Freeman writes, is “to get the project built,” artists have no responsibilities to the practical problems of the physical realm. Indeed, it is often in the gap between the real world and its representation that meaning is created.
Chris Ballantyne is a Brooklyn-based artist whose paintings riff on suburban infrastructure and its strange relationship with nature. His dioramas are self-contained worlds in which ordinary aspects of urban sprawl — tract housing, roadside ditches, parking lots — butt up against the surreal and fantastical. They depict human attempts to contain the wild and the unknown and point to the precariousness of that containment. In one painting, a cul-de-sac lined with houses rings the edge of a cliff that drops off into a sky-blue void underlying the land itself. In another, a vacant parking lot that could belong to a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store perches high among rocky outcroppings reminiscent of the mountainous terrain in Chinese scroll paintings. The paintings’ surrealism seems to invite a symbolic understanding of place, but the familiarity of specific details keeps bringing me back to experiences in the real world — to the strange psychological charge that the most mundane spaces can have.
Bas Princen is a Dutch photographer who makes unaltered images of real places, but he chooses his subjects and photographs them in a way that creates self-contained tableaux best understood on their own terms, and not in the context of the photographed site. Princen isolates his scenes and distills their essence, but he is not didactic or reductionist; the images maintain an enigmatic presence. In one photograph, a perfectly gridded ceiling is supported by concrete columns, all painted white, above a ground strewn with rocks and litter. I don’t know what or where this place is, but specific details — like the sloppy bottom edges of the paint job — underscore its physical reality and open up the picture beyond the symbolic duality of order vs. chaos. In another image, the title provides the use and location — “Cooling Plant, Dubai” — but does nothing to diminish the mystery of the black monolith that takes up nearly the entire frame, surrounded by workers clad in blue jumpsuits, who seem unsure of what to do in the face of its impenetrable, visceral physicality. Skyscrapers float in the background, idealized and ethereal. In many of Princen’s images, buildings take on the morphology, presence and muteness of mountains, sometimes literally merging with geologic features, while natural forms are hard to distinguish from human alteration.
Lauren Marsolier, a French artist living in Los Angeles, creates faked spaces that are convincingly real using multiple source photographs, unrelated fragments of reality collected over time in a wide variety of locations. Marsolier’s landscapes are stripped down to elemental parts — barren hillsides, open stretches of sand or gravel, ambiguous and simplified human structures — but, unlike many artists working with digital photo-montage, she does not combine these elements in an overtly symbolic manner. Her images draw their impact from the atmosphere of the spaces they depict. I am reminded of the cool, stark aesthetic in many contemporary architecture and lifestyle magazines, but with a pervading unease —that sleek minimalism transmuted to desolation. The perspective of Marsolier’s images puts the viewer into their space, and the intentionally awkward cropping implies a world beyond the bounds of the frame. I imagine myself sitting in the plastic lawn chair in one image or at the edge of a parking garage in another, staring off into a deserted expanse located somewhere between idea and reality.