Anton Kern Gallery | January 9 – February 15, 2014
Saul Fletcher’s striking black-and-white photographs were taken last year in his studio in Berlin, where he has recently moved. The artist composes eerie, psychologically-minded pictures that elaborate the poetry of decay: objects assume a gravitas that is both lyrical and burdensome. Fletcher’s efforts looked stark, even somber, in the severe white box of the Anton Kern Gallery. In each photograph, the artist placed people, a dog, and objects such as an empty chair between two black splotches and scribbles—expressionist graffiti, really—on either side of the studio wall. The resulting imagery is gritty and stark, with an emphasis on inchoate, unresolved emotion, which wells up cumulatively throughout the exhibition. “Untitled #272 (Chair)” (2013) consists of a wooden high-backed chair with slats for support; its Spartan facticity conjures memories of Andy Warhol’s silkscreened electric chairs. Even if this reference is only a distant connection, the atmosphere engendered by the image points to a forlorn state of disrepair—a mood that Fletcher’s viewers confront again and again in the bleak impartiality of his pictures. The objects we see in the photos tend to support a heavily phenomenological outlook, leading us toward an appreciation of things we may not notice in real life. Such a style, bordering on the morbid, negates any sense of the image as a smooth or alluring surface, accentuating art’s raw existence.
Indeed, even Fletcher’s portraits of people—posed between the two black spots on the wall—convey loneliness. It is as if their isolation matched that of the wall’s rough-cast exterior, itself a symbol of industrial, if not actually personal, neglect. “Untitled #267 (Tom 17)” (2013) shows a man clad in nothing but gym shorts, his face mostly covered by long hair. One can barely see his eyebrows and nose, adding to the enigma of mere being that Fletcher so intelligently records. In a way, it seems as if the artist is returning to photography’s roots, when the camera was privileged as the sole recorder of the visual facts of existence. In “Untitled #270 (Woodchen),”(2013) a dog, likely a whippet, bends its head toward us in a gesture of submission; its skinny body evinces a morbidity that borders on despair. The nearly naked circumstances surrounding Fletcher’s photography show us that there is little solace to be had in his aesthetic—only a long, slow walk toward psychic oblivion.
There is no doubt that Fletcher has a taste for the morbid. In “Untitled #269 (Pigeon),”(2013) for example, a dead baby pigeon hangs abjectly from Fletcher’s studio wall with a string attached to its right leg. It appears as if the string is pulling it—and us—downward to the receiving embrace of the earth. Here, the force of gravity has mortal implications. Indeed, death is the underlying theme of much of Fletcher’s work. In “Untitled #276 (Spider Web),” (2013) an anarchically spun web faces us dead center, we might say, on his studio wall. Is it the work of the artist, or some monstrously large arachnid? In such pictures, nature is diminished rather than ennobled. A certain ghoulishness prevails in Fletcher’s art; his sense of the specificity of decay and pain is so strong it overtakes the formalism of his imagery. As a result, the photographs deliver a repellent, death-oriented pictorialism, which, in turn, generates a macabre fascination on our part.
So Fletcher’s current body of work is not for faint hearts. Yet there are openings, however faint or narrow, that would seem to offer solace, or at least, a kind of grim hope. See, for example, the unquestionably eroticized image of a girl with her back to us, wearing jeans but no top. Here, the artist admits sexual feeling into an otherwise dark imaginary. In “Untitled #271 (Home),” (2013) two crudely drawn houses, set apart by an awkward, unhelpful map of red and black lines on a couple of pieces of paper attached to the studio’s wall, offers a raw but closely handled metaphor. The word “home” is scribbled on the bottom right of a drawn rectangle that encircles the composition, which we can take as a child’s vision of domestic repose. Like so much of the work in Fletcher’s sharp-eyed exhibition, these crudely rendered houses are threatened by the sparse circumstances making up and surrounding them. Fletcher is mostly a purveyor of enigmas, whose visual gestures move in the direction of death. But that does not mean he excludes the real, living world, whose imagery is handled so well in this show.
532 West 20th Street // NY, NY 10011
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.