Artists have a long history of battling their bodies. In late work especially, limitations necessitate experimentation. Bound to a wheelchair, Matisse took up scissors and sent his figures to towering heights; Monet set fire to his Japanese bridge through a wall of cataracts. Perhaps that’s why Jed Devine, the nearly 70-year-old photographer known for his career perfecting the archaic, delicate craft of the platinum-palladium print, is including so many of his historic peers in his new work, now on view at Bonni Benrubi Gallery.
Suffering from inner ear problems possibly related to the chemicals in the black-and-white photographic process, and urged further by the extinction of Kodak film, Devine has turned to (gasp!) digital, and what’s more, to color. He might as well be working in a different medium altogether.
To give a little context, the gallery includes a representative showing of Devine’s platinum-palladium work from the early 1990s. The medium’s richness is its subtlety of tone, and Devine articulates that range with precision, using shadows to confuse the edges and weights of things, making them float, making them flat. His pictures are still lifes with the traditional elements of household items and food, but he also includes images from magazines and art books. The result is a disorientation of purpose — empty teacups lying on their sides, Ingres’s “Odalisque” leaning in the dark recesses of a fruit bowl, waiting to be devoured. In these prints, the wooden countertops tip like Cezanne’s tables did, or form stark horizon lines as in Morandi’s canvases.
There’s continuity between Devine’s old and new images: his tight composition, arranging hand, and idiosyncratic insistence that art belongs in the kitchen all persist. But these days, you can’t even make out the table; it’s too cluttered with open books, discarded napkins, wrinkled tablecloths. As in the earlier work, his vantage point is always from above, surveying his temporary assemblages. But whereas before, curves dominated (platinum-palladium’s sensitivity so exquisitely captured the fullness of fruit, the closed circuit of bowls and plates), Devine’s new terrain is a grid of pixels, and he splinters it with angles, making a mess.
Inner ear damage causes a distortion of balance, and these new images tumble and slip. The trick is in the corners, where objects jut out or cut off, pointing like insistent fingers. They shove your eye toward the chaotic array — irregular air bubbles in a slice of bread, cake crumbs fallen off paper plates, the shell of a hardboiled egg buckling next to its crudely dissected interior. This new work plays with the idea of use, featuring books whose bindings are strained, a knife waiting with butter perched at its tip, matches already charred. Lit by flat, bright light, there are almost no shadows at all in these images. It’s remarkable how an artist who’s been thinking in monochrome for 40 years can suddenly rely so heavily on color and line.
But maybe that has to do with his maturity, which frees him from the trappings of mastery. These pictures indicate that time’s accumulation means an amassment of actual things. Out of his arsenal of objects and images, he’s grabbing anything within reach and trying to find a place and a use for it. In his statement, Devine writes, “I photograph where I am and what is there. I prefer the inclusive response to the exclusive concept.”
The most powerful pictures don’t just connect or compile, though, they complicate. One of the best, “Untitled (Endseason),” is a rippling, bulging space that muddles nature and its representations. In “Untitled (Looking at You),” a Degas dancer abuts a Picasso portrait, whose beard is a tangle that echoes the bird’s nest nearby. There’s so much to look at, it may take a few minutes to notice the grinning eyeglasses sitting dead center, camouflaged by the intersections they make. Discarded engines of sight, they dramatize Picasso’s unblinking stare.
Teetering between the accidental and associative, these images are special in the way they skim the silly and thoughtless while in fact being rigorously arranged. It’s no surprise that all the references that spring to mind when looking at Devine’s work are painters and collagists: Kurt Schwitters for the patchwork energy, Salvador Dalí for the radiant crispness, Robert Rauschenberg for the integration of art with life’s objects. If the array of books here presents a library of Devine’s influences, he seems to feel more kinship with the Old Masters and modern painters than any photographer. He’s drawn to the characters of art history, and the dramas that unfold when they interact. (Giotto’s angel doesn’t look entirely shocked as he peers into Hockney’s shower).
But this is more than a series of jokes. It’s an ode to living with art for a lifetime, and treating it as a daily source of sustenance. After all, isn’t Botticelli a carbohydrate, a medieval mosaic a treat? These aren’t just flat reproductions; they’re bookmarked pages you can turn to time after time. Beccafumi’s frescoes become all the more Mannerist as their book’s binding pulls them to its crevice. The stale bread and overripe fruit sitting atop the pages, the half-eaten cake and fallen petals — they’re signs that the meal may be almost finished, but everything’s still on the table.
Jed Devine continues at Bonni Benrubi Gallery (41 E 57th Street, 13th floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 12.