Gagosian Quarterly

September 18, 2017

self-reflectionsroe ethridge: Innocence II

Angela Brown considers the wide-ranging photographs included in Roe Ethridge: Innocence II.

Roe Ethridge, Louise on Brass #5, 2017, UV print on brass, 48 × 48 inches (121.9 × 121.9 cm)

Roe Ethridge, Louise on Brass #5, 2017, UV print on brass, 48 × 48 inches (121.9 × 121.9 cm)

Angela Brown

Angela Brown is a writer and editor from Yonkers, New York. She is currently a PhD student in modern art history at Princeton University.

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What is the function of a portrait? To memorialize? To capture someone’s “essence”? These questions run throughout the history of visual culture—from the Roman death masks of antiquity to the covers of fashion magazines. In his exhibition, Innocence II, Roe Ethridge complicates the questions of portraiture, revealing how various layers of the self coalesce within a single image, whether an iPhone screenshot, a nude self-portrait, or a photograph of one’s childhood home. Using his own past as source material, Ethridge locates the intersection of recognition and estrangement, tracing the history of photography along the way.

For Innocence II, Ethridge has, for the first time in his career, printed large-scale photographs on brass. Seven of them feature overlaid portraits of his long-time muse and collaborator, Louise Parker, resulting in spectral, hybrid faces—their distorted features fading in and out as if in a cinematic montage. At first glance, the photographs are romantic, naïve even, with Parker wistfully gazing into the camera, her blond hairs blowing in the breeze. Yet silhouetted objects, brick walls, and decals of Looney Tunes characters further transform the portraits. In Louise on Brass #2 (2017) four eyes gaze out at the viewer, two mouths overlap, and the contours of Parker’s hair and face multiply, producing a dizzying effect. The brass shines out from in and around these details, illuminating and reflective. Beauty veers toward monstrosity, and as the viewer tries to distinguish between the overlapping images, he catches a glimpse of himself.

Self-Reflections: Roe Ethridge Innocence II

Roe Ethridge, Louise on Brass #2, 2017, UV print on brass, 72 × 48 inches (182.9 × 121.9 cm)

A reflection of the present within an image of the past. Perhaps, conceptually, this is one of the primary goals of art itself. Photography’s origins manifested this effect as a physical reality in the mid-nineteenth century with daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes were mirrors—silver-plated copper or brass sheets, which were polished, placed in specially designed boxes, and exposed to light for several minutes or more. The light would enter through a lens and hit the metal sheet, reflecting the scene outside, which was kept in place with mercury vapor. The photographic process, though based in science, felt a lot like magic. It immortalized a moment. But moments, of course, are not meant to last forever. Photographs—back then, and now—are ghosts, documents of what is no longer (and on some occasions that which never existed at all). Photographers like Ethridge push the limits of this paradox by distorting the image, staging scenes that resemble reality, but are not “real.”

In the early twentieth century, Eugène Atget called his photographs “documents,” opening up the question of an image’s truth. Framed by the photographer, exposed for seconds or minutes, every photograph presents a specific scene that can be printed over and over, but which can never exist in the real world again—like the reflection of a man nestled among the mannequins in a shop window, or Louise Parker’s eye floating over the chipped paint on a brick wall. Ethridge’s transparencies present his own “documents” (pulled from his previous work), with an elusive, alchemical air, echoing the way images seem to float just above the metal of a daguerreotype.

Ethridge has explained that Innocence II is a “loosely autobiographical” exhibition. The photographs of Louise he included, for example, were the first he ever took with her and in them he perceives a certain purity, an earnestness that becomes more pronounced as time passes. He also visited his childhood homes in the suburbs of Miami, observing illuminated windows, minivans, and palm trees as an outsider, a voyeur in the setting of his own past. When trying to remember one’s former self, all that becomes clear is that it is impossible to become that self again. This nostalgia has been the subject of artistic consideration across genres, and Ethridge alludes to several major techniques and traditions that have sought to communicate the sensation. For example, three smaller brass works in the exhibition correspond to the three ages of man, a common theme in Renaissance painting often represented as childhood innocence, the carnal desire of manhood, and death. Ethridge coyly parallels these three ages with a portrait of himself at six years old, taken by his father in the park; a nude portrait as an adult, standing before a mirror with a cellphone camera; and a plastic replica of a skull, which, upon closer inspection, has a goofy underbite. Despite its slight facetiousness, Skull on Brass (2017), with its dark eye sockets and eternal, unmoving grin, cannot shake its status as a memento mori, reminding the viewer of their mortality. In the vanitas paintings of the Northern Renaissance, the skull was placed among other indicators of time’s unstoppable progression. Still lifes were composed of wilting flowers, rotting fruits, and hourglasses, each surface painted with the utmost detail. In Innocence II, Ethridge offers the suburban equivalents: red roses peeking through a white picket fence, mango yogurt on the tips of fingers, dandelions sprouting where the sidewalk meets the edge of the lawn. The skull merely makes explicit what Roland Barthes describes as “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”1

Self-Reflections: Roe Ethridge Innocence II

Roe Ethridge, Skull on Brass, 2017, UV print on brass, 30 × 24 inches (76.2 × 61 cm)

Considered together, the wide-ranging photographs included in Innocence II reintroduce past notions of alchemy, nostalgia, life, and death to the more fast-paced image culture of today. Ethridge expands the parameters of portraiture to include self-appropriation, temporal meditation, science, and disguise. Whether alluding to the black mirror of the iPhone screen, with a scaled-up image of Kellyanne Conway in mid-sentence, or depicting himself as pregnant, the “essence” Ethridge captures is one of intentional multiplicity, of the concurrence of many truths and non-truths.

1Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), p. 9; originally published in 1980 by Éditions du Seuil, Paris, as La chambre claire.

Artwork © Roe Ethridge

Roe Ethridge, Oslo Grace at Willets Point, 2019, dye sublimation print on aluminum.

In Conversation
Roe Ethridge and Antwaun Sargent

From his early work for magazines in the 1990s to recent projects with the designer Telfar Clemens, Roe Ethridge has consistently challenged the distinctions between commercial and conceptual photography that long defined the medium. Antwaun Sargent recently caught up with him to discuss the moment that confirmed the artist’s understanding of the photographic image’s potential for boundary-hopping ubiquity in the contemporary era.

Twelve Tracks: Roe Ethridge

Twelve Tracks: Roe Ethridge

Roe Ethridge shares the transportive powers of his playlist “Teenage Chemicals in 1985,” a soundtrack that began playing in those formative years and hasn’t stopped since.

Photograph of pink satin bow by Roe Ethridge

Roe Ethridge

During a conversation with David Rimanelli, Roe Ethridge reflected on photographs that he made during the late 1990s and early 2000s after moving to New York. They spoke as Ethridge was preparing for his exhibition Old Fruit.

The cover of the Spring 2020 edition of the Gagosian Quarterly magazine. A Cindy Sherman photograph of herself dressed as a clown against a rainbow background.

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2020

The Spring 2020 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #412 (2003) on its cover.

Diana Widmaier-Picasso standing in front of a bookcase

Picasso and Maya: An Interview with Diana Widmaier-Picasso

Diana Widmaier-Picasso curated a presentation at Gagosian, Paris, to celebrate the publication of Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter at the end of 2019. This comprehensive reference publication explores the figure of Maya Ruiz-Picasso, Pablo Picasso’s beloved eldest daughter, throughout Picasso’s work and chronicles the loving relationship between the artist and his daughter. In this video, Widmaier-Picasso details her ongoing interest in the subject and reflects on the process of making the book.

Innocence II

Innocence II

A photography portfolio by Roe Ethridge, accompanied by Saul Anton’s The Story of L.

The cover of Emma Cline’s book "Daddy"

Northeast Regional

A short story by Emma Cline, published here on the occasion of her forthcoming collection of stories entitled Daddy.

Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson, 1917, oil on canvas, domestic interior scene of people in the livingroom at the piano, reading chair, and window

Lockdown: Henri Matisse’s Domestic Interiors

John Elderfield reexamines Matisse’s Piano Lesson (1916) and Music Lesson (1917), considering the works’ depictions of domestic space during the tumult of World War I.

Jay DeFeo working on The Rose (then titled Deathrose), photographed by Burt Glinn in 1960.

Jay DeFeo

Suzanne Hudson speaks with Leah Levy, executive director of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, about the artist’s life and work.

A portrait of LL Cool J, Brooklyn, New York, 1991, but Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn

Natasha Prince interviews the Dutch photographer and filmmaker about his relationships with musicians and gets the backstory on some of his most legendary images. Ivan Shaw puts Corbijn’s practice and aesthetic innovations into context. 

Brice Marden: Sketchbook (Gagosian, 2019); Lee Lozano: Notebooks 1967–70 (Primary Information, 2010); Stanley Whitney: Sketchbook (Lisson Gallery, 2018); Kara Walker: MCMXCIX (ROMA, 2017); Louis Fratino,Sept ’18–Jan. ’19 (Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 2019); Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks (Princeton University Press, 2015); Keith Haring Journals (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2010).

Book Corner
Private Pages Made Public

Megan N. Liberty explores artists’ engagement with notebooks and diaries, thinking through the various meanings that arise when these private ledgers become public.

Andy Warhol cover design for the magazine Aspen 1, no. 3.

Artists’ Magazines

Gwen Allen recounts her discovery of cutting-edge artists’ magazines from the 1960s and 1970s and explores the roots and implications of these singular publications.