02 November 2006

Space Is The Place



Turnpike Condos, David S. Allee, currently on view at Morgan Lehman

I can be stupid about photography. It's about light and illusion and it's extremely immaterial, and I have biases that make me wrinkle my nose and dismiss these concerns as lightweight. So I am happy to report that I finally found a photographer for me, who speaks my language and can therefore shake some of these biases loose for me. David S. Allee's Cross Lands at Morgan Lehman is using the language of physical space to create surprisingly abstract photographs that leverage physical space against photographic concerns like light. The resulting images are beautiful little pushes away from the known world, into the meaning these junctions between things create.

The show's organizational conceit is about land use--what happens when the freeway meets the housing development. These are photographs about boundaries, blurred and clearly defined. This principle is inherently didactic--Allee studied to be an urban planner--and this work could easily lapse into information or documentation, but usually it doesn't. Rather, at their best these images are abstractions that seem to be made by stuffing Allee's knowledge of three-dimensional space into a medium-format camera. Turnpike Condos is not a straightforward documentation of the no-mans-land between a barrier and a row of houses. It's not about this area of grass in the foreground. By using a long exposure, Allee winds up making the otherwise invisible freeway behind the barrier much more present than the grass, even though you can't see it at all. This is a trick of light that winds up uncovering how that no-man's-land feels spatially, what it sounds like, what the pressure of movement on the other side of the wall does to the person standing where the camera was. The sensation the photograph winds up conveying owes much to Richard Serra, and that sensation would have made me swoon if Morgan Lehman had room for much larger prints.

Serra effects using light instead of tons and tons of weight? Nice! Maybe light is not lightweight at all. Obviously it can tell you a lot about matter, and can describe physical relationships in an interesting, poetic way. Using ambient light to highlight the difference between spaces or describe the effect one space has on another is one of his favorite strategies. The ballpark behind a suburban house creates a big, mysterious aura in the front of the house. The fast-food restaurant bathes daffodils and a fir tree (all nicely hemmed in by a concrete curb) in a freakish, flat flourescent white.

This work is meaningful because it moves past the presentation of contemporary life and into the representation of what contemporary life feels like, what it amounts to. In this way, Allee's work aligns itself with similarly brilliant photographer Florian Maier-Aichen, but also sculptors like Adam Frelin, who is similarly interested in manipulating both the optical and spatial effects of real things in real space.

There is a lot of large-format photography out there right now, and it seems to specialize in documenting the bleakness that surrounds us. It is a rare treat to watch someone really mine the contemporary landscape for meaning, instead of relying on its formalist freakiness for an instant hit.

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