Fan mail is one sign of success. For artist Erin O’Keefe, a confirmation that her work had found a receptive audience came when the writer Amy Herman asked for permission to reproduce her photographs in Fixed: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving (2021). In this book, O’Keefe’s work is used to challenge readers’ default thinking, prompting them to reassess the images before them.
In her New York studio, O’Keefe uses geometric wooden shapes and boards, which she carves, paints, arranges and finally photographs, creating abstract still lifes with bewildering optical effects. She resists stable categories — even down to the use of matte paper. By removing the glossy surface commonly associated with the printed photographic medium, O’Keefe gives prominence to the painterly texture of her brushstrokes, visible at a closer glance. Though she has never wanted to be a painter, her photographs resemble paintings and each image is unique. In this way, she poses a response to the prime question photography wrestles with today: why press print?
The essence of O’Keefe’s work is persistent experimentation, the hunt for puzzling juxtapositions of form and colour through dizzying triumphs of aesthetic engineering. In Shadowing (2022), elements of the piece’s elusive subject seem to defy physics, with colourful shapes springing forward in 3D. Deception is achieved through the mimicry of contrasting media. A Josef Albers-like finesse with colour creates an illusion of transparency, of floating; yet the grainy-wood texture, visible in the valley of a ribbon of blue and the raw appearance of brushstrokes, imitates painting, revealing the artist’s process. In this way, elements of the composition advance and recede simultaneously, resulting in a series of double-takes that seem to happen in a millisecond. “It’s this visual ambiguity that is captivating,” says Britta Färber, Chief Curator of the Deutsche Bank Collection. “It really changes perspectives within itself.” Following O’Keefe’s inclusion in the exhibition ‘Ways of Seeing Abstraction — Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection’, at the PalaisPopulaire in Berlin, Deutsche Bank is organizing a solo presentation of the artist’s work online and in person at Frieze New York 2022; Färber has also included pieces by O’Keefe in the recently installed collection at the bank’s new US headquarters on Columbus Circle in New York.
After finishing her art degree, O’Keefe studied in the architecture graduate program at Columbia University, where she grew fascinated by how three-dimensional spaces are often conveyed through two-dimensional images. She cites as examples certain pictures of Le Corbusier’s Beistegui Apartment in Paris, in which the deceptive photography turns the sky into a ceiling and back again. Her first exhibition, at Cornell University’s John Hartell Gallery in 1993, was inspired by how the facade of the building in Johannes Vermeer’s The Little Street (1657–58) “holds together the other views into the depth of the space.” She presented two vertical, free-standing sculptures, which functioned like periscopes. Façade 9 Square and Façade 4 Square (both 1993) were “each fronted by large mirrors with a series of periscopes attached to the back, forming a shallow box.” She was “trying to collapse all of these disparate views onto one surface,” specifically “with the mirror, which itself kind of dematerializes”. As in Vermeer’s painting, O’Keefe’s use of different visual illusions collapses and expands perceived space.
At O’Keefe’s studio, we spoke about instances of things not being as they seem, from Jan Dibbets’s ‘Perspective Corrections’ (1967–69) to the artist’s experience of an optical illusion at James Turrell’s Roden Crater project in Arizona, where what appeared to be a circular skylight at the end of a tunnel turned out to be an ellipse opening cut into the ceiling. “It really shifts your mind, eye, body awareness.”
Describing the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s aforementioned apartment, as seen through images, O’Keefe says: “There’s a wall that wraps the rooftop, and a tiny bit of the top of the Arc de Triomphe pops up and then there’s this structure that you go into where there’s a periscope.” In this way, “you get the view of the city, but only secondarily.”
After my visit to O’Keefe’s studio, a friend asked me what her work was like. I told him that her photographs are in a book about pausing to think before taking something at face value. His response was: “That’s good life advice.”
Explore Deutsche Bank’s presentation of works by Erin O’Keefe online on Frieze Viewing Room throughout the fair.
This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline ‘Puzzle Pieces’.
Main image: Erin O’Keefe, Lost at the Beach, 2022, detail. Courtesy: the artist and Deutsche Bank