Lauren Semivan: Spoken by a Ghost | Benrubi Gallery

BY Zach Ritter, May 1, 2024

For nearly 20 years, Lauren Semivan has been expanding her photographic practice within the seemingly limited confines of her studio. The arrangements she builds for the camera often feature isolated parts of her own body, along with sections of lushly painted wall, various papers and fabrics, and myriad found objects that find new meaning and formal significance within her subtle and elegant compositions. Though she has worked mostly in black and white, she has opened her work up to color over the past six years, a fact made plain in this exhibition, where delicate, almost iridescent colors are realized in seven pigment prints drawn from her most recent series. The remaining five works offer distinct iterations of the brilliant blue spectrum of the cyanotype process. In this focused selection of mostly recent work, Semivan continues to use her large-format camera to create new and frankly beautiful pictures that seem to narrow the separation between the photographic object and what it represents. 

Lauren Semivan, Untitled (September 7), 2021. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

The main wall of the exhibition shows seven works from A Map Both Distant and Concrete, an ongoing series that Semivan began in 2018. In these constructed, luminous works, she deftly arranges folded paper and sheer fabric, string and framed pictures (with both front and back showing), against walls of lively, sweeping brushwork. At times, what is painted and what is set against it seems to blur and even meld together entirely. Indeed, what I thought of often while looking at these works was not a photographic antecedent but certain works in the history of painting. In Untitled (May 6) (2019), I saw echoes of Louise Fishman’s abstractions, for example, whereas Untitled (March 13) (2021) and Untitled (marian blue) (2021) brought to mind the folds of drapery and tablecloths in Vermeer. Though for Vermeer a bundled tablecloth or the folds of a curtain play a dramatic role in the scene he paints, for Semivan these objects are often repositories of shape and light alone.

Opposite this wall, with works that alternate between deep color tones and light, shimmering pastels, is a group of cyanotypes that are an altogether spectral affair. The spaces of her studio are made to express a kind of layering of time, in which certain details (a hand, for example, or a sheet of paper or fabric) seem faded and thin, while others (a vase of flowers) appear dense with light and substance. A cyanotype on canvas, Untitled Chemigram #102 (2023), makes explicit the textural qualities running through Semivan’s work while also pressing upon the conventional boundary between photography and painting, if only to remind us of how tedious it is. 

Lauren Semivan, Untitled (reverse landscape), 2021. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

It is hardly the case, though, that these works mean to function only as critical exercises or historical correctives. Though Semivan grounds her images in what she creates in her studio, they are ultimately accomplishments of framing, and whatever objects we may swoon over in a given picture will likely be discarded or repurposed after an exposure has been made. These are concise and suggestive compositions that achieve meaning not through their original construction, but in how Semivan translates their three-dimensional complexity into two-dimensional form.