White Cube, London, UK
Gregory Crewdson’s photographs feature a series of ongoing and possibly connected dramas, located in small town America yet conceived on a grand scale. They do a considerable amount to affirm the suspicion that the contemporary epic is increasingly located in the anonymous American landscape, each of the images in the now completed ‘Beneath The Roses’ series carrying a strong whiff of impending crisis.
Crewdson’s photographs are often described as cinematic, and they do layer David Lynch’s surreal dread over Alfred Hitchcock’s snap-trap narratives of suspense. But, crucially, the photographs read in a manner that is entirely distinct from film. Each image operates as a compacted drama, with the significance spread between various visual points within the image. It is between these points that a density of meaning and narrative is constructed; in this sense, Crewdson references classical ideas of symbolic representation that are located in painting rather than cinema, or even photography.
At times that meaning is conceived too concretely, as in The Mother (2007), an image of a woman sitting in the bath. A bottle of pills is open on the sink top; a mirror reflects a pile of hastily discarded clothes and dictates a clear narrative of post-coital malaise. Brief Encounter (2006) features a similar pile-up of declarative meaning, from the words on a movie theatre marquee to the solitary figures on the street, to a bus sign that reads ‘Not In Service’. The result is a somewhat overdetermined image, with singular rather than multiple layers of meaning.
Elsewhere, the work does little more than give an oppressive sense of atmosphere and mood, as in RBS Automotive (2007) or Trailer Park (2007), when the figures function more as objects than as characters. They emerge as passive subjects in a drama that they have not necessarily perpetrated, the unfolding of which is beyond their control. It is here that Crewdson’s work is most affecting, staging classical notions of dread and fate against an acutely contemporary backdrop.
Crewdson’s photographs are, in this sense, located firmly in the present tense. And if the trauma operating at the core of the photograph is unclear, then that is precisely because it is ongoing, and has yet to be properly assessed. The strength behind Crewdson’s photographs lies in their ability to stage – and then extend indefinitely – the moment just prior to comprehension.
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