In its 30-plus years in operation, Fraenkel Gallery has honed its exhibition program to a state of canny perfection. Its roster brims with major photographers, and the presentations are smart and impeccably installed. It feels more daring, then, that its summer offering, a subtly engaging, thematically unified double feature, embraces themes of uncertainty. The two exhibitions on view through August 23 look at a new materiality, offhanded gestures, and emerging visions from the perspective of four contemporary photographers, and in little seen mixed-media works by John Gossage.
The group show, Where There’s Smoke, explores a sense of sculptural objectness through literal construction of images and choice of photographic subjects. Collage pieces by Dutch artist Ruth Van Beek thematically address the notion of decorum. The grounds of these works are full-color pages from vintage homemaking magazines, most of still life images of minimalist flower arrangements. At least that’s what they appear to be; the artist has obscured the main forms with vibrant cutouts of watercolor painted paper, creating bulbous shapes that exude a perky mysteriousness. Cryptically elegant, they set up a dynamic between photographic image and object.
Viviane Sassen’s chromogenic prints also traffic in this tradition. She merges aspects of Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacement works with Barbara Kasten’s Constructs, building a curious essence of site — a flattened perspective makes it notably difficult to pinpoint the location. Sassen creates geometric abstractions with mirrors and colored gels that she photographs in red desert sands in Africa. The simplicity of the camera tricks are not difficult to tease out, yet there’s a provocative tension, a daring vulnerability, of rickety construction playing out on a harsh backdrop.
There’s a similar sense of discordance to Michael Lundgren’s large photographs of unidentifiable objects — the strangest a dead fox with green fur in a shallow square grave — and sundry works from Jason Fulford’s appealingly noncommittal Hotel Oracle series. Where Lundgren favors elements that appear heavy and dark, presented as large prints, Fulford’s staggered arrangement of mismatched subjects — icicles on a staircase, a prosaic retail display of light bulbs — are more sanguine, and seemingly anachronistic, like lushly colored 1940s postcards.
In his wall text, gallery director Darius Himes raises questions about how works were made and exploratory intentions. “Is the photographer off-kilter,” he asks, “or is the subject?” His selections suggest transition, the artists caught in the act of formation.
The 12 works by John Gossage are a couple of decades old and appear more settled in their skin. He mounted black-and-white photographs — atmospheric textures like footsteps on an expanse of sand, urban architecture, a bed of flowers — on larger sheets of paper accented with layers of smaller geometric applications of pastel colored paper. They have a sense of the poetic that brings to mind Richard Tuttle collages. Goassage’s works are most interesting for being a series that existed outside his straight photographic work. He too, productively tinkered with his foundation, and like these exhibitions, made gentle strides.