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Richard Learoyd at McKee Gallery

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 8, 2013

Portrait or still-life? Seventeenth-century Dutch master or twenty-first-century photographer? Reality or artifice? These are some of the thoughts that drift through my mind as I contemplate the latest group of photographs by Richard Learoyd that will go on view in New York tomorrow.

Learoyd’s unique life-size photographs were first seen here in 2010 at a solo show at McKee Gallery, and also represented by a single portrait at the concurrent exhibition Dress Code at the International Center of Photography. Seen alone at ICP, the portrait of a young woman, Agnes, in a red dress, made a stunning debut for the photographer. The immediacy of the image, the incredible surface quality of skin, the woman’s luminous eyes, the slightly wrinkled fabric of the dress, suggested something other than a photograph, and other than a portrait. Agnes seemed to have been captured alive, to be treasured, like a butterfly pinned onto velvet. So much about photography was not evident in this image: ideas about time and memory are notably absent; the graininess we expect in a photograph, to some degree at least, is absent. As a portrait, the image conveys more about the photographer than about his subject. What remains is essentially a study in light and optics, the essential elements of photography, which today are often obscured by narrative content.

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Above, left:Agnes in Fur, 2011; right:Flamingo I, 2012. Copyright Richard Learoyd, courtesy McKee Gallery.

Realism (not to be confused with reality) and photographic truth are so much the subjects of these images that the title of a new exhibition opening tomorrow at McKee Gallery, Still / Life, could hardly be more apt. In his 2010 catalogue essay, Mark Alice Durant wrote, In front of Learoyd’s images of human beings, we are not led to symbolic analysis or sociological reading, he is not a collector of types, nor are his pictures windows to something else. Instead we are confronted with the weight and gravity of image as object, the intensity of pictorial and material presence. Learoyd’s 2011 nude, Man with Octopus Tattoo II, (below, left) seen at London’s National Gallery last winter, conveys the weight, substance, and sensuousness of human flesh in its essence, as alluded to by Durant.

tattoo_1.jpgIn the two years since I have seen Learoyd’s work (and it’s important to see it in actuality, not as small replicas viewed on computer), a darkness has taken hold of the imagery, in both the portraits and still lifes. Through email exchanges while I was writing an article about his work for Aperture (No. 199, Summer 2010), Learoyd said that he regularly made still lifes during periods when he did not have a model lined up. Some of his subjects were a giant squid; the roots of a tree; and an antique mirror. Now his portraits and nudes will be flanked by the remains of a flamingo; a dead hare; and a horse head. The horse head is particularly unsettling, as a glimmer of life seems to be reflecting from its eye.

Perhaps this is a reminder from Learoyd of the elemental purpose in making a portrait, something that deserves consideration in an age when we see more photographic images in a single day than most people saw over a lifetime during photography’s first 100 years.

So much has been written about Learoyd’s process in creating these life-size images that, however significant his invention--and it is--reporting it once more becomes almost a distraction from the pictures themselves. The best way to appreciate the artistry of Learoyd’s invention, though, is to view the archived video of a 2011 talk he gave in the Photographers Lecture Series at ICP. During the talk Learoyd said, It’s a very, very confrontative process. In the studio, you take a photograph and it comes out of the machine after we’ve taken the picture—after 18 minutes—and it’s there, it’s finished, it’s not a study, it’s not a sketch, it’s not a model of the photograph, it’s not a small version of itself, it’s not something that will be amended, retouched, changed, or anything. That’s it. It’s done.

The opening reception for Richard Learoyd: Still / Life is Thursday, May 9, 6-8 pm. McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, Fourth Floor, NY, NY.

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