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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Luigi Ghirri at Aperture Gallery

It was with a huge sense of fulfillment that I took in the current exhibition of photographs by Luigi Ghirri at Aperture Gallery in New York (through Jan. 29

Please let me explain. I first came upon Ghirri's work in early 1993 as I was beginning a two-year stay in central Italy. He was from Modena (like the balsamic vinegar) and I found his work in a substantial catalog that accompanied a retrospective exhibition that had just been held in Bologna. In the book, charmingly titled "Vista con Camera" ("View with a Room"), I found an eclectic, regional sensibility represented in highly refined color photographs, many of which resembled many of my own. The elation I felt in finding an artistic soulmate in my new country quickly turned to a feeling of loss, though, when I learned that Ghirri had died at 49 years old the previous year, and that the show was an elegy.

Ghirri was quite well-known in the European art and publishing fields, but he was almost completely unknown in the United States. None of his many books had been published in English, and I never did meet anyone here in the US who had heard of him (though the record shows he exhibited at Light Gallery in New York).

But now we have a fine exhibition of his work at Aperture and a beautiful monograph in English that accompanies it. "It's beautiful here, isn't it ... " is the title of the show and book, and immediately expresses the sweet openness with which Ghirri approached his life in photography and in the high plains of north-central Italy. No naif, Ghirri was a deep-thinking philosopher and theorist, whose esoterically probing writings are peppered throughout the show in perfect proportion to the 90 pictures on view.

Constructed as a room within a room, the large gallery places the viewer immediately into the labyrinth of Ghirri's roving mind, led, of course, by his all-seeing eye. A very large opening panel presents a wallpaper-like grid of simple sky snapshots, about 200 of them selected from a total numbering 365, for an entire year in which he took one picture of the sky each day. This introduction sets the emotional and intellectual tone for the show, but it does not represent Ghirri's genius for careful perusal and selection; rather, it shows his almost religious exuberance in accessing the joys and sorrows of daily life through photography.

The rest of the exhibition consists of framed pictures of generally modest size - no art-fair mural prints here - grouped in thematic runs of short or long duration, and organized somewhat, though not strictly, chronologically, from the earliest work of the 1970s through his last years. The walls are white, but in the central room, where some of the strongest work is displayed, they have been painted a middle blue, which very nicely offsets the soft colors of the works hung there.

Ghirri's subject matter is about equally divided between landscape and interior. Architecture is a dominant theme, and people are few. Unlike his contemporary color pioneer William Eggleston (who wrote the book's preface), he seems more of a quiet observer than a participant in the images, and he keeps his distance in that sense. But his observations are acute, placing him near Eggleston in the category of social commentary. Late-20th-century color practitioners Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld also share his sensibility.

The early work, mostly shot in 35mm, has a sense of the absurd and a structured form. Many of these images are composed vertically, and play visual tricks on the eye. Ghirri's sly observations of cityscape and landscape as playgrounds for the fertile mind are characteristic of the movement in the '70s that eventually took on the name New Topographics.

Later work, especially several 20x24-inch Polaroids done in 1980, appears more personal and allegorical, which leads smoothly to the latest work, in which Ghirri has constructed groups of pictures that together form a portrait of their subjects - the artist Giorgio Morandi and the architect Aldo Rossi - not by depicting the men themselves but by recording the details of their studios.

These last two bodies, shot in 6x7 centimeter format and printed at 16x20 inches, are shown in the central blue room, and they remain my favorites of the show for their masterful use of color and composition and the strong and subtle ways in which they work together. As with the rest of the show, the prints are both vintage and contemporary.

Ghirri was known to take his work to a drugstore for processing, and while the technical quality of some of the earlier prints is acceptable, some others in the show are noticeably off-color and unevenly printed. But the new prints are just perfect in every way, using the latest in inkjet technology to appear exactly like expertly made C-prints.

Obviously, Ghirri was not available to plan the show or its installation, but his wife, Paola, deserves credit for a marvelous job of culling and curating. There's no doubt Luigi would be proud of the show and very pleased to be reaching wider audiences on these shores at last.

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