Albarrán Cabrera | Marshall Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

BY Leah Ollman, July 1, 2023

Whatever else a photograph shows or does, it also attests to the medium’s nature – what photography can show, what it can do. There are images and bodies of work that make this function explicit, the way an ars poetica uses the language of poetry to articulate poetry’s own capacities and reasons for being. Albarrán Cabrera’s quietly engrossing show at Marshall Gallery through July 8 samples from a decades-long practice that comprises one continuous ars photographica. The three dozen prints by the Barcelona-based collaborative (Angel Albarrán and Anna Cabrera) date from 2012 to 2023, and while they belong to discrete series, all of the series remain ongoing and are unified by their common investigation of Photographic Syntax – the title of the show as well as the couple’s recent book (Ibasho, 2022). 

The pair’s conceptually rich inquiries into how photography influences and structures vision, memory, identity, and the parameters of truth are also formally sumptuous. Most of the images are sourced in the natural world – trees, water, mountains – and are printed on delicate Japanese calligraphy paper, then mounted on a surface covered with gold leaf. They have a ravishing inner radiance, and the emphasis on their materiality reinforces their status as internally driven constructions, layered, inverted, chromatically intensified or otherwise altered from direct transcription.

Albarrán Cabrera, Kairos, #4020, 2015. Courtesy Marshall Gallery

A piece from the Kairos series (#4020, 2015) is modest in subject and scale but incisive in its implications regarding the possibilities and impossibilities of photographic capture. A dog appears crossing the picture plane, ringed by shadows of a tree and some sort of architectural form. The image is spliced horizontally, cutting off the top of the dog’s back and revealing a sliver of the gold on the base layer beneath. Whether the piece is two separate pictures joined, or a single picture interrupted is hard to determine. What registers is the slippage of time invoked, the sense of both duration and lapse. In a photograph, the critical present moment (kairos, in Greek) is at once complete and incomplete.

Albarrán Cabrera, This is you here, #146, 2018. Courtesy Marshall Gallery

The series This is you here uses the family travel album as a vehicle for reconsidering photography’s evidentiary value. The faces of the posed figures are soaked in shadow, obscured to the point of cancellation. The photographs are compositionally “wrong,” but all the more emotionally complex and elusive for their refusal to accommodate convention. Here, as elsewhere, our habit of seeing through photographs to their subjects is disrupted, and Albarrán Cabrera steer us instead toward looking more acutely at them as systems of knowledge.