On ViewAnonymous Gallery
March 3–April 15, 2023
It’s the opening night of Photography Then and amidst the sea of bodies it’s almost impossible to catch more than a glimpse of the work. But despite the deafening crowd, as I descend into the basement level space I can’t stop thinking about the prophetic TikTok that inspired this show. In her video from September of 2022, Fashion theorist Rian Phin predicted that “we would return to the Juergen Teller industrial complex … [and] the American Apparel industrial complex … because the attitudes that encouraged these aesthetics to rise are returning.” In an effort to encourage critical discourse around the re-emergence of these youth image aesthetics, curators K.O. Nnamdie and Tasneem Sarkez placed emerging artists—Chessa Subbiondo, Alyssa Kazew, Jesse Gouveia, and Thomas Polcaster—alongside established figures Buck Ellison and Jack Pierson.
The exhibition’s title is a satirical jab at similar museum-based surveys that attempt to capture contemporary photographic vectors but are constrained by unwieldy bureaucracy. The curators’ hope is that a more intimate approach will yield a more nuanced set of relationships. By most measures, they’ve succeeded. The collection of images feels cohesive, if not in visual content then by the artist’s varying approaches to the staged composition.
At first glance, it’s impossible to look at LA based photographer Chessa Subbiondo’s Addison Rae (2022) without tracing some sort of dystopian present in which TikTok stars rule the gallery world, idolization and celebrity worship engulf art making, and self-aware satire serves as a sort of meta-justification for hypocritically avoiding nuanced thought. But, the image is not entirely detached from its conceptual lineage. The most obvious reference is a photograph of Britney Spears in front of a hotdog stand taken by David Lachapelle for the 1999 VMAs. However, unlike LaChapelle’s “Britney,'' it's not record labels that threaten Subbiondo’s subject, but a cannibalistic attention economy.
Directly adjacent to Subbiondo’s Rae hangs Jack Pierson’s photograph Blake (2005, 2023). Unlike the rest of the work in the show, Blake isn't neatly framed, or mounted. The image of a preppy looking fit white man reclining onto a mid century car is printed on a soft textured paper, casually creased, and hung with four nails. It feels sanctimonious but approachable. When Pierson first took this photo, its most accessible form of display would have been a cheap magazine fold out pinned to the wall, and Blake embodies this ethos. It’s the nostalgic specter of a bygone era of cultural worship—one particularly welcome after Subbiondo’s eerie vision of the present.
On the adjacent wall hangs a similarly apt pairing of Buck Ellison's Untitled (Christmas Card #2) (2017) and Alyssa Kazew’s Boys! Boys! Boys! (2022). In Christmas Card #2 a neatly posed wealthy white family sits in a prim living room. Numerous subtle yet poignant moments of sincerity punctuate the otherwise contrived scene. The youngest child gazes into the glowing screen of an iPhone, the family’s dog squirms out of view, and the only daughter gazes unsmiling towards the viewer. Beside Ellison’s imposingly large work, Alyssa Kazew’s photograph depicts five conventionally attractive men standing in a suburban yard, arms linked, shirts off. The scene Ellison constructs draws on the kind of hyperrealism that Rian Phin might term, “Juergen Teller-esque”; while Kazew’s photograph feels like an Abercrombie ad circa 2005, stranded without its commercial context but still gripping tightly to its frigid generality.
Across the room is Jesse Gouveia’s installation Archways (2023), possibly the most complex composition in the show. An image of a toilet papered bedroom (from his parent’s wedding night) covers the wall, while a photograph of Gouveia in a fictional embrace with his father at the airport, is hung on top. Initially the photograph, Saying goodbye (2022), seems to be Gouveia’s attempt at processing our collective fixation on the inevitable departure of those we hold dear. But two small, yet undeniably visible logos—SUPREME on Gouveia's shirt and Levis on his fathers pants—raise doubt about Gouveia's intentions. Impossible to unsee, the brilliantly saturated red monograms have a chilling effect on the emotional tenor of the photograph. They inextricably link the work with the kind of trickery, acting, and uncanny sterility characteristic of Photography Then.