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New York
Alec Soth
Sean Kelly Gallery
475 Tenth Ave, New York, NY 10018
February 3, 2012 - March 11, 2012

How to Disappear in America
by Hannah Daly

There’s a dissonance to Alec Soth’s imagery: the locations appear slightly odd, the objects that receive the attention of isolation are veiled in a bizarre light. In 2008_08zl0215, a collection of hangers weigh limply on a metal rod that runs between two pocked rock surfaces of a space not quite identifiable. It seems part cave, part closet, with undulating unfinished walls painted a bright, shining white. Aesthetically, the image is, regardless of the vague sense of discomfort, intensely pleasing: the vibrancy of tone and precision of form come together in a composition that reads, and well, up. Soth’s images resist becoming too pretty, however, or too strange, and between those extremes his subjects gain a mystique. It becomes hard not to look.

Minnesota-based Soth’s Broken Manual is the artist’s first show with Chelsea’s Sean Kelly Gallery. The series is the result of his travels across America in search of recluses: in the face of the decline of American empire, Soth seeks and documents those who have pulled out of society, looking for refuge or respite, hiding or just going away. Research took Soth across the country to seek out those living off the grid, or outside the conventional tenets of a traditional lifestyle. His travels followed the prescribed course of the series accompanying text, also entitled Broken Manual, authored by an alter ego of the artist. In general, Soth’s work vacillates between images and texts, with the connective tissue of research running between them. Broken presents a synthesis of the two: Soth’s photos share the show’s narrative with an archive of notes, texts, and other process-resultant material.

Beyond the prints included in Broken Manual, the show presents Somewhere to Disappear, a film documenting Soth’s journey to develop the series. Soth charts the psychic landscape of post-Bush America, locating the desire to run away, step out of society, in the face of the decline of the American empire. The film functions as a cinematic counterpart to the textual version of Broken Manual, and both are just that: a manual detailing “how to disappear in America,” an idea rife with both the seductive and discomforting qualities of Soth’s imagery. It could be so easy to check out of the complexities of staying connected to a difficult world, and simply go. Yet, as good as it sounds, some eerie quality of dissonance persists. Even if the picture looks pretty, there is more. But it is that more - that simultaneous intrigue and tension that insists we engage with the narrative Soth carefully constructs.

In the front room of Sean Kelly, a series of columns of stacked books line the front wall. Photographs, notes, remnants and excerpts hang on the wall above. The installation is the embodiment of the research process: information compounding, collecting and coalescing into a recognizable structure. Narrative begins to emerge. The archive of the development of Soth’s Broken Manual is a monument to process. Images are only the result, if a breathtaking one. For Soth, the nuances that led to the image holds the dissonance and tension at the crux of his work.
Images: Alec Soth, 2008_08zl0238, 2008. Courtesy of the artist; 2008_08zl0097, 2008. Courtesy of the artist; Installation of Broken Manual, Books and Research Material, 2011, Photo by Hannah Daly. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery.

Posted by Hannah Daly on 2/6/12 | tags: conceptual mixed-media

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