Beneath the roses

Photography

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, Winter 2007.  Photo courtesy of the artiste and Luhring Augustine, New York.

An epic-sized print by Gregory Crewdson greets you as soon as you walk into an exhibition of selected pictures from his latest collection ‘Beneath the Roses’ in Mumbai. A woman transfixed in a moment and a man on a mechanised wheelchair are streaked by a vivid shaft of light from an alley. Behind them, in the distance is a ‘Senior Centre’. Grays from a dwarfing landscape of soiled snow and a twilit sky frame them. The landscape in turn is stonewalled by a row of houses in a non descript American small town. Almost everything you will see in the pictures that follow is in here, but it is only at the end of your tour that you will find yourself sucked into a different world that has been drawing you in menacingly and stealthily all the while.

Crewdson constructs this world to host his study of “psychological reality” as he terms it. The scale and set up is elaborately choreographed to the last detail and the subjects, that are more like characters, picked from ordinary townsfolk or professional actors, are inevitably in a moment of distress. The setting is small town America in the present time and the result deals with the real by scaling realism and emerging from it. Crewdson does not attempt to conceal the staged nature of his pictures — if anything it is boldly flaunted, because he is more interested in making you feel than believe.

His pictures tell a story, collectively and individually, but the format is unconventional enough to render them anti-narrative. They are reminiscent of Technicolor stills from movies and derive a lot from them in terms of themes and style, but their genesis overall, is a more complex affair, borrowing liberally from forms of fiction, documentary, psychology, paintings and performance art.

His prints look like paintings, texture and edges reworked for the effect. In this, Crewdson achieves more than visual allure; he challenges what we expect from a ‘photograph’ and therefore what we allow it to do for us.

The prints are ‘flattened out’ until every detail is equally meaningless or meaningful, compromising accessible symbolism to nurture the story on the whole. Yet, the objects he strews around are crucial — largely decrepit urban waste, consumer ‘essentials’ and the mainstays of American lifestyle; alcohol, cigarettes, coffee and prescription medicines.

His characters are singled out by deliberate and artificial lighting, rather than conventional ‘focus’, almost always lost in their surroundings and betraying visible anguish or atleast melancholy in demeanor or facial expression. Their emotional and psychological trauma lies bare in the complex physical spaces, but there is enough room for the viewer to transpose their own inner life on to the frame and watch it play out most lucidly.

Crewdson’s creation is about blurring lines — between art forms and genres on one hand and evocations on the other. His is a world where youth and age, the ordinary and the uncanny, the before and the after and the obvious and the mysterious play with volatile boundaries. His pictures are dramatic but never sentimental. Infact, they are almost cruel in stance, drawing out misery as if it were deserved or inevitable. Also inevitable is crime and violence — its absence from the frame only serving to highlight its casual sway over this life. And what is evil, is banal.

Inert characters whose plight is recedes in significance against their reaction to it, inhabit houses that mock at the mediocrity of middle class taste and the postcard visions of home — never quite transforming into one. In this place, time has frayed everything — the material and the human and slipped into irrelevance after setting up irreversible decay.

There is alienation, fear, regret and passive longing but no struggle to escape guided by hope. Cars are parked, there is nowhere to run.

Wide open doors and windows expose these characters as do their clothes, but their vulnerability is more gothic than fragile. And redemption is not even a remote possibility.
Light is the invisible co-protagonist in the stories. Elaborately layered and nuanced, haunting the landscape that lies still like a long dead body. Beauty is dead too and nature can’t redeem what is built up. Inevitably it is some time of the day when darkness is overwhelming the light, and the bleakness of the sludgy landscape is drawing attention to its role in art and psyche.

Crewdson’s intricate study of human despair is as much his critique of America — questioning its collective dream of materialism that has already come to naught, razing in its wake peace, faith and love, burying them as words in lexicons forever.

The exhibition comes to India at an important point. A lot of rhetoric is suddenly being generated on ‘unequal development’ as terrorizing retaliation from long suppressed masses rages on in various parts of the country. Drowned out by the din is a more crucial question about the larger meaning of development — a question relegated to the realm of philosophy in a uniformly capitalist world.

This question Crewdson asks as poignantly as possible also crucially signifying the potential of human expression in mediating political debate. All this, while our state readies itself for the biggest ever armed offensive against its own people.

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