By Loring Knoblauch
JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in grey and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2019. Physical sizes range from 25×20 to 50×40 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of +2AP.
The show also includes 5 sculptures (2 single works and 1 triptych) made of plywood, paint, mirror, and PVC pipe, made in 2019. Physical sizes are either 17x22x9 or 18x24x5 inches each. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: At a moment in contemporary history when our ability to discern facts from their opposites is called into question on an almost daily basis, Erin O’Keefe’s disorienting constructed abstractions feel particularly relevant. While her photographs employ no digital trickery, their truths seem somehow uncertain and malleable – the spatial properties we expect from her elemental geometries are both straightforwardly apparent and puzzlingly upended, leaving us with works that oscillate between obviousness and obscurity.
While O’Keefe’s previous works largely played with the controlled interaction of cast light and the hard edges of transparent Plexiglas sheets (in 2015, reviewed here), and more recently, the overlapped layers of painted cardboard cutouts (in 2017, reviewed here), her new photographs bring the central figure/ground dichotomy of sculpture back into view. Thick blocks of wood are the primary actors in her new arrangements, their sides cut into undulating painted curves.
In each setup, these cut pieces are installed in ways that the edges, the carved-out negative space, and the shadows (either real or implied) are placed into visual conflict, the flattening eye of the camera making the “front” and “back” of the space difficult to discern. O’Keefe’s exacting placement (and lighting) of these objects deliberately confuses our perception – she precisely matches the lines and edges that we might usually use to help understand the depth of the space so that the overlaps and continuations are overtly perplexing. When she paints the sides of the cut forms black, they become particularly deceptive, as they fool us into thinking they are shadows.
Formally, O’Keefe has brought curvature into her compositonal toolbox. She’s added vase-like shapes, wave-like ripples, sweeping cuts, tight scallops, and bulbous rounds to her vocabulary, often mixing several of these types and visual rhythms into one collapsed arrangement, with flat panels of color in front and behind to further skew our sense of depth. Almost all of the works deliver a moment of confusion that goes beyond the abstract sculptural interplay, so while we may be initially drawn in by the bright colors and the sinuous curves, we are ultimately pleasingly wrong-footed by what we see.
This show also includes a handful of wall sculptures that test our perception in alternate ways. Using angled mirrors inside boxes with painted sides, O’Keefe creates optical realities (via reflection) that initially seem impossible, that is until we understand how the setups have been constructed. Once we are in on the game, the elegant cleverness of O’Keefe’s management of space becomes clear – it takes sophistication to make simplicity look so complex.
These new photographs feel like they have opened up some new artistic white space for O’Keefe. The curves have freed up the strict order and tightness of her compositions, allowing her to bring more fluidity and lyricism into her highly controlled geometric environment. That contrast of hard versus soft, placed within her framework of camera-driven spatial uncertainty, offers plenty of exciting as-yet-unexplored options.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $5500 and $12000, based on size and the place in the edition; the sculptures are either $12000 or $24000 (triptych). O’Keefe’s photographs have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
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