The title of Tanyth Berkeley‘s most famous photograph carries a certain formal satisfaction, but I’ve always felt unsettled by the intimacy of its glare. “Grace in Window.” The shot broadcasts the translucent skin of its subject like a beacon flashing urgently across a moon-lit pool. But the title puts her in her place. It exemplifies Berkeley’s early work – the extraordinary among the ordinary – and it was the centerpiece of her appearance in an exhibition of new photographers that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007. A critic at the New York Times likened the model – a recurrent muse named Graciella Longoria – to “an ethereal alien” and said she exemplified Berkeley’s work inside “the Diane Arbus school.”
Berkeley has since moved on, both from Longoria and from reviews in the Times, which last took notice in 2009 at a show in James Danziger’s old gallery in Chelsea, dedicated entirety to shots of Longoria; “a combination of Marilyn Monroe and the moon,” Berkeley told the paper then. Her latest show is in Bushwick at Transmitter, one of a collective “hub” of galleries cramped inside a former steel shop on Willoughby Avenue. The gallery hub opened in 2014, a year after “Grace in Window” had made its way across the pond and into a Charles Saatchi’s gallery in London.
The first thing Transmitter’s copy says about the show is that its name comes from the Buffalo Springfield song “For What it’s Worth,” a tune that makes me think of the pandemic, because it was sung by Billy Porter at the all-virtual Democratic National Convention in 2020. In the video, by the time Porter gets to the line “what a field day for the heat,” a sign rises behind him that reads “Black Lives Matter.”
Her subjects this decade are the same and different. Portraiture remains a vessel into the soul of urban, cosmopolitan life. But while a gothy stare would do in 2004, now there is the unhinged elfish glare in “Tyreek,” a gorgeous gel of monochrome colors that double as a portrait of a “kickboxer,” according to the gallery. If Longoria had been a vessel for Berkeley’s interest in the soft light of albino-white skin, Berkeley’s latest cast of characters take this idea to the very edge of abstraction. The most stunning of these concepts comes in the form of the show’s decision to pair the alliteratively titled “Farrel” and “Fire,” which both showcase a painterly command of the color purple.
More moving is when her eye wanders to new forms. This comes in the landscapes, the most accomplished of which depicts a disquieting field on Randalls Island. The stick-figure sized man in the center of it made me think of something Dawoud Bey would shoot if he never heard of gentrification.
Speaking of: “Berkeley chooses to avoid images that include indicators of gentrification,” the copy later reads. It is an interesting idea, like making art that ignores climate change. But it’s unfortunately not true. Gentrification shows up precisely in the center of a maudlin portrait of a block of construction. The life-like greens in the piece, however, make it among the most alive portraits in the show. The lifelessness carries its own kind of cornball politics; a photograph of the Rockaways wasteland feels like a public service announcement painted by Winslow Homer.
Taken throughout the last year, the shots thread a story about the first year of pandemic life, they but curiously shrug off any interest in stamping the images in time. No masks. Nonetheless, the dazed looks that the images all share capture a feeling that’s uncomfortably familiar.
“A Field Day For The Heat” will be at Transmitter at 1329 Willoughby Ave. until Feb. 13th. The gallery is open weekends, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and on weekdays by appointment.
Featured image taken by Andrew Karpan.
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