Object Lessons explores photography and its subject with varying degrees of success


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The subjects of James Henkel’s photos are among the least interesting objects imaginable: bricks, combs and toothbrushes. The curator’s statement at the start of the exhibit describes the objects as a testament to someone’s life, which may be true – a toothbrush indicates life, but not very exciting.

“Object Lessons” at Light Work is a collection that examines 30 years of Henkel photography. In an artist talk at Light Work on Thursday, Henkel explained that the exhibition examines past series and themes, capturing a few pieces from each, dating back to 1998 and as recent as last year. The common thread lies in the positioning of each subject in studio conditions, the perfect quality of the prints and the darkness of everything he photographs.

In each of them, Henkel’s “elevation” of found and broken objects seems to make them a work of art in its own right. At best, “Object Lessons” is an artistic exploration of the balance and meaning of still life photography. At worst, it’s comfortably boring.

Photos of pitchers and bowls punctuate the walls of the exhibition. While some of his other photo sets from the same era or project stay together, his “ships” prove they can be self-sufficient. These are some of the most beautiful images in the show, and that’s exactly what they’re meant to convey, Henkel said.

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He wanted to explore how vases and pitchers can still communicate unconventional beauty, even if they’re broken – and although he didn’t say so, maybe something about beauty being the truth.

These photos show pitchers broken and then reconfigured to their original shape with rubber bands and tape. “Open pitcher”From 2017 is all tension and balance. The pitcher, placed in the front and center, does not have its front half, so you can look through it to the back wall intact. The spout has been broken but hangs haphazardly from the rim of the pitcher. On the other side, the disconnected handle is reattached by a rubber band that wraps around the neck of the pitcher.

This one looks like a portrait, as it forces the viewer to personify the pitcher by creating dramatic situations around its most human aspects: the lip and the neck. The elastic that holds it together has a text on it: “arm”. Around the pitcher is cracked porcelain, as if it had just collapsed – or more likely, had been broken on purpose.

The way it is balanced and tied seems fleeting, like the Greek urn. The medium of the photograph keeps this crumbling pitcher in its alluring decay state forever, but the photograph does not fit in as well with its subjects in all of the other photos in the exhibition.

There are several photos from several series which focus on old books. These are the only color photos in the exhibition, and they are very simple. Henkel tied, cut and layered old books and then photographed or scanned them, from the side or from above.

The photographs and scans are so real, with every loose thread visible and the texture of the book cover so clear that it may already have been a physical piece. It seems what Henkel wants to communicate is more the way the books are rearranged than the composition of the photo itself. The photograph actually removes a layer of interest from the book, leaving it flat and two-dimensional both figuratively and physically.

During his artist talk, Henkel described these book photos as a way for him to reclaim literature after struggling to read in college, even though he lived below a second-hand bookstore. . He started photographing books in 1977 and more recently has started to deconstruct and reconstruct them.

“It’s a way for me to own the book that I saw as a struggle, a challenge or an obstacle.” said Henkel. “Now, I can make a story, a beauty, a structure, something that I appreciate”

I didn’t think of books as something to own or conquer, and I don’t think anyone who lived below a second-hand bookstore would either. This explanation invalidated the whole series for me emotionally – it sounded more vengeful than artistic.

But two pictures of bricks – “Bricks # 2” and “Bricks # 5”- do for the most nuanced works of the exhibition. At first these look like geometric squares on a grainy background, but on closer inspection, they are stacked bricks with looming shadow, perfectly centered in all directions.

Henkel took them in 2015 while he was artist in residence at Light Work. He saw skaters build structures out of old bricks at a local Syracuse skatepark, so he rebuilt them into his own sculptures.

These, as well as all of the photos in the exhibit except the books, are in black and white, as Henkel said they were “inherently more abstract.” This is true in this photo – if it was in color you would know it is a brick. Because it isn’t, it can become all kinds of things in the mind.

The angle is what sets them apart. This is not the typical Henkel point of view in the studio. Because they are slightly above, the foreground merges with the background and the shadow spoils the shape, ultimately creating a true abstraction.

Henkel enjoys photographing “ships, books, tools (and) a few other things,” he said. But his tools are the best. The bricks serve as a foundation and a building block, so seeing them recontextualized in this photo – not building anything substantial – creates a meaningful work of art. Technically, the print is “quite perfect,” as Henkel called it, with detail in every grain and a vast grayscale.

But works that concern “a few other things” have much less to offer. My favorite is “Arm», From his 1999 series« Ocean ». I was sitting in front of him during Henkel’s artist speech, and my disdain for it turned out to be distracting. Despite Henkel’s good-natured and often brilliant discussion, “Arm” was there – a clumsy, imposing, and painfully large photo. Openly gray, with one disjointed arm balanced in the sand on his fingers, this photo looks unnatural in every way. While the bricks were simple and left room for interpretation, it was basic and unappealing.

Henkel made the difference between taking pictures and taking them during the chat. He insisted he do the latter. By taking his photos, he is also the object, however “found” it may be. He reimagines and reconstructs the meaning that charges his object. In some still lifes, the new meaning he has shaped for the object slides perfectly, fitting in perfectly. In others, however, the object contorts to crash into this expectation, or worse, disappears completely underneath.

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