Laura Letinsky is a master at having it both ways. She photographs messes that are exquisitely tidy. She uses white like a color. She presents endings in a moment when they are still new, still vibrating with just spent energy. She captures objects as images and images as objects. She makes decay look gorgeous.
Letinsky is known for her artfully arranged still life photographs of empty ice cream bowls, half-eaten and over-ripened cantaloupes, and slumping party balloons. Over the last decade, she has chronicled the moments after the party, after the sumptuous meal, after all the ice has melted and all the guests have gone home. With the eye of a commercial art director, her photographs are as fastidiously orchestrated as those you might find in a Martha Stewart catalogue. Similar, that is, if the Grande Dame of country house finery employed petit bourgeois entertaining as a metaphor for loss, mortality, and the tragic promise of unattainable perfection, as Letinsky does.
At Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Laura Letinsky’s self-titled exhibition “Laura Letinsky” consists of large-scale still life photographs from her series Ill Form and Void Full and expands upon her exploration of earlier themes by incorporating collage elements into her tableaus. Decaying food items, wilting flowers, and dirty silverware are arranged next to magazine images of fresh fruit and sparkling serving dishes in order to create a poetic effect that complicates viewers’ perception of what is on display.
Within the reality of these photographs there is the constant question of which elements are authentic and which elements are mediated; what is an actual object and what is actually an image of an object? A lime rind twisting through Untitled #3 (2010) appears to be a paper cut out. But it also casts a shadow. The paper is an object in space with an image printed on it. The lime rind – as well as the ripe cantaloupe and candy dish also featured in the piece – is an idealized depiction of an every day object. It’s also an idea pertaining to decoration, one that casts a shadow on our desires as consumers and on our notions of what to strive for as members of an image conscious society, but only exists in print.
These collage elements cover just a fraction of Letinksy’s pictures. Layers of white surfaces take up most of the space within the photographs. Untitled #14 (2010-2011) uses a white platform on a white floor next to a white wall partially covered by a white piece of paper that serves more as a collage element than a backdrop. Letinsky pushes this study of white to almost dizzying effect in Untitled #34 (2011) by including a clear plastic bag, flower pedals, an over grown white onion, and a white piece of paper featuring a roughly cut silhouette of a flower and vase. The subtle interplay between these surfaces, images, and objects creates a delicate range of white, off-white, and gray gradations that reminds us that in life there is no pure value of white. It’s another unobtainable ideal.
The nuance within the white echoes the constructed quality of the collages and also adds to the overall sense of delicacy to the compositions, which is emphasized in myriad different ways throughout the show. The paper elements have a tangible quality of thinness to them. Food items often look precariously near or beyond their shelf lives as the shriveling grapes do in Untitled #14 (2010-2011). Collage items in Untitled #19 (2011) teeter dangerously near the edge of a sloped platform. Even the natural light quality used throughout the photographs seems to suggest that, were the picture taken a moment later, the fineness of the end result may have been lost.
This sense of fragility is nothing new to Letinsky’s work. The artist’s still life photos made prior to the inclusion of the collage elements contained this characteristic, but because she was photographing objects and not other images, there was a greater sense of urgency to the pictures. In her series Hardly More Than Ever, for example, Letinsky presented the after products – wilted flowers, segmented fruit, and dirty bowls – only moments after they had out lived their usefulness. The objects in these images were tenuously situated in a transitional process, carrying with them the remnants of their beginnings and forecasting their completed decay while encapsulating a total event or a full lifecycle in a single photographic instant. This work spoke to the rich temporal possibilities of photography.
In the new series, she is still playing with this notion of temporality by carefully selecting images and objects that convey a sense of potential and decay. But in photographing images – moments already frozen in time – the urgent materiality of the subject matter is replaced by conceptual distance. Loss, mortality, flux, unreachable ideals; these themes are still present, but at a slight remove that lends an academic quality to the show.
Letinsky is clearly pushing the boundaries of still life, as well as her own process of art making. And while I appreciate the materiality and dynamism of the artist’s earlier work more than the conceptual gamesmanship of what is on display at the M.C.A., the show is incredibly rich. It’s always exciting to see a gifted artist work through new questions, and arriving at such pleasing results.
Laura Letinsky will be on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 17, 2012.