Gregory Crewdson reputedly spent three years setting up and taking the elaborately staged, large-format photographs currently on display, under the collective title Beneath the Roses, at the White Cube Gallery. There is no catalogue to the exhibition, only a pamphlet entitled “Production Notes”, which reveals that the pictures in question were taken “on location” in the small towns, variously, of Adams, North Adams and Pittsfield in Massachusetts, as well as Rutland in Vermont. This same slim publication, like a hard-copy version of the rolling credits that appear at the end of a movie, also lists the small army of those who assisted Crewdson in his work – electricians, set dressers and carpenters by the dozen, as well as an entire special effects team charged with responsibility for “prosthetic bodies”. “Swamp Design” was apparently carried out by a gentleman named Buzz Gray.
Crewdson evidently approaches his work like a film director. Everything has to be just so, whether it is the light filtering through that specially designed swamp, or the expressions on the faces of the actors whom he employs, or the precise details of their costumes and hair. All this to produce a series of static images, like the stills for a film that never actually gets shot. The most obvious precedent for such apparent perversity, in recent American art, is the self-portrait photography of Cindy Sherman, who dresses herself up in a polymorphous plenitude of roles, places herself in various enigmatic but unmistakably cinematic situations and exhibits the resulting images as Untitled Film Stills. Crewdson works to a bigger budget and produces larger images – roughly six feet by seven – but courts similar effects of ambiguity and disorientation.
Cinema is plainly an inspiration to him but so too is a certain kind of painting. The unexplained freeze-frames that constitute Beneath the Roses pay homage, in roughly equal measure, to Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock. The air is heavy with small-town desperation, alienation and boredom. A couple in a bedroom, she standing by her vanity table, he slumped on the bed, are frozen in postures of mutual dissatisfaction. Cut to a pair of young lovers, coiled naked on a mattress in the backyard of a small house, composing a picture of post-coital ennui. Cut to a heavily made up all-American mother, parodically Hopperesque in her strained, disconsolate demeanour, sitting at table with her withdrawn teenage son over a plate of congealing roast beef. Cut, once more, to a woman – the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, as it happens – sitting alone in the front passenger seat of a car at an empty intersection. Nearby, the lights are on in a store that calls itself “Ad Lib” and advertises itself as an “Independent Living Centre”, perhaps in ironic mockery of her predicament. The car’s headlights are on. The driver’s door is open but the driver is nowhere to be seen.
Open car doors turn out to be something of a leitmotif. In another of Crewdson’s photographs a woman leans out of the open passenger door of another driverless car, parked in some nondescript suburban side street, to contemplate some half-inflated balloons floating in a puddle. Two youths, one of them bare-chested and sporting a mohican hairstyle, regard her morosely from the porch of a white clapperboard house. Meanwhile, out of the glare of streetlights, away in the woods, there are all sorts of macabre goings-on. Some of these exterior mises-en-scenes involve prosthetic bodies and designer swamps, while others make do without such elaboration. In one picture, a man stripped to the waist kneels in front of a shallow grave. Behind him a boy flashes a torch. In front of him another young man strikes a pose that could be meant to suggest grim recrimination. This is reminiscent of the execution scene in Scorsese’s Casino, minus the steel baseball bats and sense of impending threat. The mood is fatally weakened by the presence of two rather fey and self-conscious girls in jeans and t-shirts, who look distinctly unsure of their roles.
The epithet of value most commonly applied to Crewdson’s work by those who admire it (or those whose job it is to sell it) is “disturbing”. But the truth is that this work could hardly be less disturbing. The situations in which the artist places his actors and actresses alternate between angst-ridden cinematic cliché and a familiar form of late Surrealist tableau vivant (Man contemplates large hole that has mysteriously appeared in bedroom floor; Woman sits in bed filled with plant debris; etc). Partly because these are enigmas that have so artificially been concocted as enigmas, beyond explanation or interpretation, their effect is anything but enigmatic. They are soothingly dull, immaculate in their superficiality, although they do occasionally veer into outright absurdity. Crewdson’s pictures teeter on the brink of self-parody, as if he himself were unsure about quite how seriously he should be taken. The adolescent extras who wander the outskirts of his dystopian version of Smallsville, USA, seem especially unconvincing. Part of the problem is that they look, simultaneously, so slender and so vacuous that they resemble models rather than real people (or even actors playing real people) and so drag the whole thing down to the level of a themed fashion shoot. The cumulative effect of Beneath the Roses is very Dolce & Gabbana, with a noir twist.
The Timothy Taylor Gallery also happens to be showing photographic works by a contemporary artist; and these too are said to have taken some three years to create. But the similarity stops there. The J-Street Project, by Susan Hiller, is a belated lament for the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The concept behind her work, a mosaic of small photographs, is straightforward. Having identified a total of 303 roads, streets and paths in Germany still prefixed with the word “Juden”, Hiller set out to visit and photograph them all. The resulting 303 pictures, displayed neatly in rows in simple plywood box frames, are presented in a way that suggests they amount to a form of evidence. Each is numbered, like a courtroom exhibit, and the artist has supplied a correspondingly checklist of streetnames, together with a map of modern Germany, so that the assiduous viewer can verify the location at which each picture was taken. Number 86 was taken in Friedburg, on Judengasse; number 87 in Friedburg, on Judenplacken; number 88 in Fritzlar, on Judengasse; and so on. They are ranked alphabetically, a fact which, taken together with the bureaucratic compendiousness of the enterprise, suggests an element of grim parody. The artist records the look and the names of the places where German Jews once lived, and she does so as meticulously as their killers went about the task of exterminating a race.
The effect of the piece is much as might be imagined from reading a description of it. The places Hiller has visited are ordinary, unexceptional. She photographs a street sign attached to a wall next to a bungalow with off-street parking; she photographs a street sign leaning at an angle in a field on the outskirts of town; she photographs a street up which an old woman labours with her shopping. The pictures trace an absence and rely for their impact on an implied contrast between terrible things once done, in certain places, and the innocuous look of those places now. There is very little variety to the work, since the same single pictorial trope of poignancy is repeated with stultifying frequency across its different panels. Looking at it is rather like watching someone shoot the same easy target 303 times in a row. There is also a video, and a group of separate prints on sale in editions of three.
The J-Street Project may be immune to criticism, or at least to art criticism, since what it amounts to is a conceptualist’s gesture of solidarity with those who have suffered, a visual declaration that the Holocaust should never be forgotten. This is something that can never be said often enough but the saying of it, in art, does not have to take quite such a banal form as this. Doubtless Susan Hiller has good intentions – as many good intentions, perhaps, as Gregory Crewdson has assistants – but that is still not enough to disguise the fact that her work is the arduously achieved accomplishment of a rather thin and arid idea.