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Suburbia, Mystified

Gregory Crewdson says his work, at Gagosian, is 'all about crating your own world.... It feels familiar and ordinary, but I like to defamiliarize it.'

June 29, 2002|SUZANNE MANTELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — If ever a gallery artist were ripe for defection to Hollywood, New York photographer Gregory Crewdson is the one. Crewdson, 39, creates large-scale color tableaux of ordinary people in not-quite-right domestic settings. To realize his vision, he brings an entire film crew to his suburban "sets" and spends months in the throes of "post production."

Though not unique in creating staged pictures (Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Sharon Lockhart, among others, work in a related vein), Crewdson takes his process to the limits of still photography, employing a vast technical team that at times has included multiple production managers, a director of photography, an aerial engineer, several camera operators, a production designer, a lighting supervisor, three gaffers, eight grips and electricians, two pyrotechnics specialists, two casting consultants, a carpenter and, of course, a few documentary photographers to record the process.

People speak of Crewdson's work as film stills, but distilled films might be more apt, since the movies they elusively refer to don't exist.

Despite all the behind-the-scene effort, the hallmark of the work is an eerie calm. "Twilight," a Crewdson exhibition that opens today at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, contains 20 48-by-60-inch richly colored and finely detailed C-prints that are as still as a walk through a post-apocalyptic landscape.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 02, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 11 inches; 408 words Type of Material: Correction
John Everett Millais--Nineteenth century artist John Everett Millais, who painted a work titled "The Death of Ophelia," was misidentified by the last name Millet in a story in Saturday's Calendar about photographer Gregory Crewdson.
*

In these photographs, the latest in a series that Crewdson has been working on since 1998, houses glow from unseen causes, school buses lie toppled and ordinary frontyards bristle with tension from the presence of hastily abandoned vehicles.

In all of the work, an air of mystery and menace hovers, and the subtext is a driving story line that, if only the viewer could grasp it, would surely explain everything.

"My job as a photographer is to take all this production and make it real," Crewdson, an amiably disheveled fellow, says over lunch a few days before the first of three openings of "Twilight," in May at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Manhattan. (The show moves on to London's White Cube Gallery after its Los Angeles engagement.)

"Ninety-nine percent of my time is spent in production meetings with designers, scanners, people who work with computers.

"All to have an aesthetic experience at the end. I barely call myself a photographer anymore. I say I'm an imagist. I'm interested in creating a beautiful image. Beauty and mystery. It's very basic art stuff."

The pictures, done in editions of 10, plus two artist's proofs and one print for Crewdson himself, sell for $15,000 each. Luhring Augustine co-produced all of the current work, picking up half the tab, which, the artist says, ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In one taunting narrative in the series, kids in a group stare at an enormous mountain of flowers piled high in the middle of their neighborhood street. ("It's my version of a memorial," Crewdson says.)

In another, moths glint in a shaft of light that pierces a darkening road and illuminates an ungroomed patch of land. ("In all the pictures," he says, "light is a narrative code, revealing or illuminating or transforming.")

In the jarring picture that serves as the cover of a new book based on "Twilight," a woman, supine, floats in water in her living room, a lamp and other furnishings reflecting in the liquid surface. Her fixed stare is impenetrable.

The photo was inspired by "The Death of Ophelia" by the 19th century British artist John Everett Millet, a painting Crewdson considers beautiful.

Is she alive or dead?

"I don't know," he says.

Crewdson has been pushing photography's boundaries for more than a decade, to considerable acclaim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney and LACMA are among the museums that own his work, along with such private collectors as agent Michael Ovitz, director Jan de Bont ("Twister") and "Frasier" writer-producer Chuck Ranberg.

Crewdson's name was even bandied about on a recent episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under." ("Personally, I think everything he does, Gregory Crewdson did better, except years ago," an art student tells teenage Claire Fisher, in a reference to another character, Billy Chenowith.)

An essay in the "Twilight" book by novelist Rick Moody tracks Crewdson's transformation from high school rhythm guitarist in Brooklyn to "demonic artificer" photographer by way of a 1962 show of Diane Arbus' photos at the Museum of Modern Art that his father, a psychoanalyst, took him to. ("It is weirdly personal," Crewdson says of the essay. "I can barely bear to read it.")

Crewdson started taking large color photos at Yale as a graduate art student in the late 1980s (he currently teaches there full time). Later, he focused on photographing miniature dioramas, each of which would take him a month to build.

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