Art Criticism

Object Lessons explores photography and its subject with varying success

Sydney Pollack | Assistant Culture Editor

“Object Lessons” was assembled to explore the meaning of found objects and how still life photography can put them in new context.

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The subjects of James Henkel’s photos are some of the least interesting objects imaginable: bricks, combs and toothbrushes. The curator’s statement at the start of the exhibit describes the objects as a testimony to someone’s life, which may be true — a toothbrush does indicate life, just not a very exciting one.

“Object Lessons” at Light Work is a collection that examines 30 years of Henkel’s photography. In an artist talk at Light Work on Thursday, Henkel explained that the exhibit looks over past series and themes, grabbing a couple pieces from each, dating as far back as 1998 and as recent as last year. The common thread is in the positioning of each subject in studio-like conditions, the perfect quality of the prints and the obscurity of each thing he photographs.

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

Photos of pitchers and bowls pepper the exhibit’s walls. While some of his other series of photos from the same time or project stay together, his “vessels” prove they can stand alone. These are some of the most beautiful pictures in the exhibit, and that’s exactly what they are meant to convey, Henkel said.

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He wanted to explore how the vases and pitchers can still communicate an unconventional beauty, even if they are broken — and though he didn’t say it, maybe something about beauty being truth.

These photos show pitchers that are broken then reconfigured into some of their original form with rubber bands and tape. “Open Pitcher” from 2017 is all tension and balance. The pitcher, placed front and center, is missing its front half, so one can look right through it to the intact back wall. The spout has been broken but hangs haphazardly from the lip 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 feels like a portrait, as it forces viewers to personify the pitcher by creating dramatic situations around its most human aspects: the lip and the neck. The rubber band holding it together has text on it: “arms.” Surrounding the pitcher is cracked porcelain, as if it just fell apart — or more likely, was broken on purpose.

The way it’s balanced and attached feels fleeting, like the Grecian Urn. The medium of photography allows this crumbling pitcher to remain in its state of alluring decay forever, but the photography doesn’t mesh as well with its subjects in all the other photos in the exhibit.

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There are several photos from multiple series that focus on old books. These are the only color photos in the exhibit, and they are very straightforward. Henkel tied together, cut up and layered old books 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 these may as well have been a physical piece already. It seems like what Henkel wants to communicate is more the way the books are rearranged than the composition of the photo itself. The photography actually removes a layer of interest to the book, leaving it flat and two-dimensional figuratively as well as physically.

During his artist talk, Henkel described these book photos as a way for him to reclaim literature after struggling with reading in middle school, even though he lived below a used bookstore. He started photographing books in 1977 and more recently began deconstructing and rebuilding them.

“It’s a way for me to own the book that I used to see as a struggle, or a challenge or an impediment.” Henkel said. “Now I can turn it into a story, a beauty, a structure, something that I enjoy,”

I haven’t thought about books as something to own or conquer, and I wouldn’t think that someone who lived below a used bookstore would either. This explanation invalidated the whole series for me emotionally — it sounded vengeful rather than artistic.

But two photos of bricks — “Bricks #2” and “Bricks #5” — make for the most nuanced works in the exhibit. At first these look like geometric squares on a grainy background, but on closer examination, they are stacked bricks with a looming shadow, perfectly centered from every direction.

Henkel took these in 2015 while he was an artist-in-residence at Light Work. He saw skaters building structures out of old bricks at a local Syracuse skatepark, and so he reconstructed those into these sculptures of his own.

These, and all of the photos in the exhibit except the books, are in black and white, because Henkel said it is “inherently more abstract.” That holds true in this photo — if it were in color, you would know it’s a brick. Because it’s not, it can become all kinds of things in the mind.

Angle is what sets these apart. They aren’t Henkel’s typical studio perspective. Because they are from slightly above, the foreground merges with the background and the shadow mars the form, creating, finally, a real abstraction.

Henkel likes to photograph “vessels, books, tools (and) a couple of other things,” he said. But his tools come out the best. Bricks serve the purpose of a foundation and building block, so seeing them recontextualized in this photo — building nothing of substance — creates a meaningful work of art. Technically, the print is “utterly perfect,” as Henkel called it, with detail in every grain and an expansive gray scale.

But the works that concern “a couple of other things,” have a lot less to offer. My least favorite is “Arm,” from his 1999 series “Ocean.” I was seated in front of it during Henkel’s artist talk, and my disdain for it turned out to be distracting. Despite Henkel’s good-natured and often brilliant discussion, “Arm” was there — an awkward, imposing and painfully large photo. Overtly grey, with a disjointed arm balancing in sand on its fingers, this photo looks unnatural in every way. While the bricks were simple and left room for interpretation, this one was elementary and unappealing.

Henkel distinguished the difference between taking photographs and making them during the discussion. He insisted he does the latter. In making his photos, he also makes the object, “found” as they may be. He reimagines and reconstructs the meaning that charges his object. In some of the still lifes, the new meaning he has fashioned for the object slides right on, fitting perfectly. In others, though, the object contorts to squish into this expectation, or worse, vanishes completely beneath it.







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