Whatever space is left between the borders of art and commerce is home to Roe Ethridge. Among the works in his show American Polychronic, at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue outpost (another show by the same name ran concurrently downtown at Andrew Kreps Gallery), Ethridge fashioned spontaneous still lifes from school-garden sunflowers, and fussed-over ones from Chanel tennis balls. They seemed to be advertising the same thing. They seemed to be advertising that they were the same thing.
Ethridge is known for creating early 21st-century images that embodied their time. His 1999 portrait of the beautiful, bloody-nosed performer and party-starter Andrew W.K. became a mascot for indie sleaze millennials. The image was used on the cover of the performer’s album, I Get Wet, and over the next two decades, Ethridge’s photographs drew an undeniable power from his refusal of any difference between work made for advertisers, editorial content, and collectors. His deconstructive point of view was cut from the same cloth as contemporaneous movements, in the art world and elsewhere, to collapse economic and identity hierarchies.
The Gagosian show arrived, fittingly titled, at a time when we’re all trying to do everything at once – be authentic and authentically sell ourselves on social media, and be energized, not paralyzed, by that dichotomy – and when those deconstructive strategies have been largely accepted. Perhaps it’s unfair, then, to expect his photographs to pack the same punch. In Polychronic for the times in your life (2022), a photocollage sits between a mirror and a vase of precisely arranged flowers. It’s set at an angle, reflected in another mis en scène, but the sightlines don’t make sense, and it’s tough to see beyond the luxury and careful set design. In fact, it’s often tough to see much more than what’s right there in front of you. Read the title of Lara Stone with a Fuji Pool Floor on a Refrigerator (2022) and you’ll pretty much know what you’re looking at it. Kodak Raft with Smoke (2022) is dreamy, but you might wonder whether it alludes to an apocalyptic getaway setup or a backyard barbeque. The stakes feel the same. Ethridge is sometimes likened to David Lynch in his interest in eerie Americana. But where Lynch is chilling, Ethridge right now is just chill.
To be sure, some of the photographs connect. The face of that sunflower droops just like a tween facing homework. Those tennis balls ache to be lobbed. In the former, there’s mystery, and in the latter, narrative. If Ethridge’s old strategies risk exhaustion, perhaps this faith in magic and storytelling points to a way out: objects do matter. They are inexplicable. They have things still left to tell us about the world.