BY Michael Darling in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Gregory Crewdson

BY Michael Darling in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

What to make of a serious, self-defined practice that suddenly turns goofy, superficially topical and worst of all, derivative? This is the problem posed by Gregory Crewdson's latest series of photographs.

In the past, Crewdson's nature-based tableaux were captivating, mysterious narratives that told of shamanistic gatherings within the animal world. Intense, jewel-like colours generated by dense clusters of birds, plants and butterflies communicated a very personal vision of the palpable and unsettling conflict between man and beast. Most of these elements, however, have now been banished, replaced by common-garden alien abductions produced with a staginess reminiscent of Jeff Wall and the banal pranksterism of Tony Tasset. Admittedly, there are photos here that are still recognisably Crewdsonian, and these happen to be the best in the show. Untitled (Bread) (all works 1998), for instance, features a wooded backyard almost out of sight of a suburban house where a bizarre temple of sliced bread has been assembled, stalagmite-like, to become a gathering spot for a United Nations meeting of fowl - ducks, pheasants, turkeys, chickens. This inexplicable, utterly non-specific rite - like the best of Crewdson's earlier photographs - exerts a considerable pull on the viewer's imagination, bringing the powers of recognition out of hibernation to try to make sense of its beauty and reconcile this with its weirdness

No such mind-strain is necessary in processing the scene in Untitled (Party): knowledge gained from a zillion episodes of the 'X-Files' and supermarket tabloids tells us that the shocked, septic-tank truck operator has encountered some supernatural phenomenon while emptying a temporary toilet in a backwoods township - the bright white light emanating from the commode says it all. Likewise for Untitled (Floating), which features the tabloid reader herself, a rural hausfrau in housecoat, interrupted while taking out the trash by an unseen, but unmistakably alien visitor, who beams her up in a dreamy levitation to a waiting spacecraft (all off-camera) no doubt equipped with mind-altering devices and sexual-torture equipment. The beam of light that strikes Joe Six-Pack with awe after returning from the neighbourhood convenience mart in Untitled (Light) is unlikely, in this locale, to be from a searching police helicopter and is most certainly evidence of a 'close encounter'. At the risk of sounding completely jaded, we've seen it all before.

The real mystery of photographs such as these is why Crewdson has gone to such lengths to make monumental representations of the everyday narratives of afternoon talk shows and B-grade horror films when he is so adept at fashioning his own truly extraordinary stories. Many of the new photos have the high-production values and panoramic sweep of movie stills (part of the Jeff Wall problem), making one wonder if the artist is not testing the waters for a feature film of his own. It is hard to fault someone for being ambitious, and harder still to reject real change and growth within an artist's oeuvre. Unfortunately for Crewdson, however, fancy outdoor sets with live actors, bird's-eye viewing platforms and mild special effects don't yet deliver the same kind of product that the artist used to cook up in his own elaborate studio sets.