Painterly Voyeurism: Arne Svenson at Julie Saul
Arne Svenson: The Neighbors
Julie Saul Gallery
May 9 to June 29, 2013
535 West 22nd Street, 6th Floor
New York City, 212 627-2410
Slightly graying hair, a brown tee shirt and a phone cradled between his ear and shoulder provide the only clues to the identity of a young man leaning against the inside of a window that secures him from a plunge to the pavement. The window glass reflects a copper-clad architrave on the building across the street, confirming both the photographer’s position and the elevation. Just below this reflection a telling visual pun is created as the man’s shirt stamps a momentary fossil of woven cotton against the window pane, signifying both his domestic insulation and his ignorance of the camera’s attention.
Arne Svenson’s ingeniously cropped digital photos were presented at the Julie Saul Gallery under the sardonic title, The Neighbors, thus admitting the paradoxical relationship between the artist and the unsuspecting souls that wander through his pictures. Captured without their knowledge by means of a telescopic lens, Svenson’s compositions use these partially viewed individuals to add a sense of arrested intimacy to what would have been compelling visual arrangements on their own. Employing the divisions of window mullions to form compositions that seem constructed of altarpiece panels, Svenson brings a detached formality to the mundane activities of his unsuspecting models. This particular framing device reveals images that bear an uncanny resemblance to paintings.
Whether the product of diffused light combined with sharp detail, or the result of a digital zoom’s grainy texture filtered through New York’s floating grime, the effect gives the subject matter, particularly gathered curtains, the appearance of having been painted in oil. Neighbors #26 (2012) maintains the illusion of a softly brushed mien, reminiscent of Caravaggio’s drapery, contradicted only by the unquestionably photographed neck and chin peeking out from below. The viewer is kept teetering between painting’s tactility and the verity of the lens, triggering rather odd instances of art historical déjà vu. In Neighbors #17 (2012) for example, a partially sunlit teenager in a green rocker, holding a teddy bear on her lap, is restricted to the lower right triangle of the picture, while the upper left triangle is a dark void. Its tenebrism suggests Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793), while its precision and muted color recalls the eggshell texture of a William Bailey still life. Svenson appropriates these and other incongruent pictorial conventions with an impressive ease.
The real magic of these effects is that they were unplanned. By being open to visual serendipity, the artist achieved a rare form of conceptual opulence. Though contextually reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s through-the-window voyeurism, the formal properties of Svenson’s pictures share more with the ambiguous mise-en-scène of 16th century Mannerism. Hopper keeps to an audience’s proximity to the subject. Svenson maintains his distance. Stalking his subject from a dark and hidden perch, the raw material is then cropped and trimmed with a cold, aesthetic eye that embraces the inevitable banality. Neighbors #5 (2012) is but a head and hand, rising above the back of a sofa, casually twirling a lock of hair in silhouette against the warm glow of a shaded lamp.
The exhibition received additional attention when it came to light that the neighbors themselves were none too pleased with Svenson’s intrusion on their privacy. Complaints were made; lawyers consulted. And though it does not appear to be an aspect of the project the artist chose to exploit—to be fair, nearly all of the subject’s activities are harmlessly ordinary—the controversy serves as a parable of art as a communal medium. Svenson expresses no less indifference toward his subjects than his subjects express toward their neighbors, who must consciously avert their eyes from oversized glass prosceniums, framing spaces conventionally understood as private.