The Mad Men Photographer

el 09 003 edit The Mad Men Photographer At first glance, Elad Lassry’s work can look like advertising. His bold, ambiguously retro genre photographs, showcased in the “New Photography 2010″ show opening this month at the Museum of Modern Art, feature animals, actors or still lifes of mundane or commercial objects: cosmetics, eggs, pencil-holders, would-be matinee idols. Using the language of commercial photography, and saturated in color, Mr. Lassry’s artworks picture something or someone not to be resisted.

Consider Pink Hat (2010), which shows a woman’s head, her face cropped out and topped by a fiery red, witchy hat. Pink ribbons bubble in coils from the hat. “Of course, it plays with the genre of fashion photography, or a period when a woman would have worn a hat like that,” said Mr. Lassry. “But once you get over that, you have to deal with the material that’s left: What’s it sitting on? Is it on a head or on a mannequin? Is it in any way a subject?” 

The 32-year-old Israeli artist, three years out of grad school at Cal Arts, will be one of only four photographers in the MoMA exhibition curated by Roxana Marcoci. (The other photographers are Alex Prager, Amanda Ross-Ho and Roe Ethridge.) The show opens Sept. 29.

It’s a splashy way for a Los Angeles artist to inaugurate a season in New York. Simultaneously, he’ll open his debut solo show at Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea, which shows process-oriented painters Christopher Wool and Josh Smith. And this week, the artist is in St. Louis for the opening of his exhibition at the city’s Contemporary Art Museum.

Just what is it that makes Lassry’s photographs so different, so appealing? His Los Angeles dealer explained how misunderstanding can play a part: “The funniest thing happened last December in Art Basel Miami,” recalled David Kordansky, who has exhibited Mr. Lassry’s work at many art fairs. Mr. Kordansky was showing the artist’s Two British Short-Hairs Cats (2009), featuring just that, with some subtle digital manipulation. “Its reference points are everything from cat photography that you find on the Internet to cat calendars to cat books that crazy cat ladies love to collect,” said Mr. Kordansky. “And these older women [at the fair] were trying to, essentially, locate the genus of the cats.” Little did they realize that the cats’ images were manipulated, their ears shortened and their eyes enlarged. “It became an alien; it became a monster,” says Mr. Kordansky. “But these older women were so taken with it–as if Elad were a cat photographer!”

St. Louis curators Anthony Huberman and Laura Fried write that the artist’s images are “thoroughly familiar and blank at the same time. … Excised from their original context, the images move beyond the simple category of ‘photography’ and instead ask us to revisit the perceptual experience of a picture.”

The artist was born in Tel Aviv. Growing up, he remembers that a poster of Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Nastassja Kinski and the snake hung above the dining room table, an early inspiration. He began to make videos before he started making photographs, because the technology was around, he said. He moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to study. “I wanted to go to art school and I found out about Cal Arts through learning about the artists I liked, [conceptual artists] John Baldessari and Mike Kelley,” who teach there. He was in for a surprise, as he believed he could commute to Los Angeles from San Francisco. But the spread-thin city turned out to suit the artist, who describes himself as someone who “doesn’t get out much” and who “needs to do things when places are empty. I go to eat when other people don’t eat.”

Beatrix Ruf, the influential German curator at the Kunsthalle Zurich, who gave Mr. Lassry a solo show earlier this year, argues that there is something particularly Los Angeles, particularly American, about the work. The artist sometimes uses animals trained for cinema, and has sets and replicas fabricated by local companies. “In Los Angeles, he has this access to the production of a world of fantasy and fiction and glossy surfaces,” she said.

For his 2009 film, Untitled, (which will be on view at MoMA) Mr. Lassry turned to the past to recreate a rehearsal for Jerome Robbins’ 1955 Christmastime TV favorite, Peter Pan. He cast actors as Jerome Robbins (Eric Stoltz) and Mary Martin (Merett Miller), the original star of the production. The viewer sees the two actors, both of them blandly recognizable, practicing dance at the bar. Then, “Martin” learns to fly. Mr. Lassry calls the film “kidnapping something from its context.”  The artist’s well-known headshot series, starring what he calls his “young aspiring actors,” involves a ritual in which the artist first posts a classified ad for a performer. I don’t chase traditional individuality,” he said.

Indeed, the artist’s work uses, but consciously goes beyond, the constructs of advertising. Often displayed in frames that precisely match a color in the picture, a whole work is packaged as a unit that seems to pop off the wall. Said Michael Ian Kaye, creative director and partner at the New York advertising agency Mother, “The studio-based work spoke to me from a commercial point of view.” He said. “He has a deadpan approach to capturing the image, and I thought the compositions were really dynamic. There was a sense of humor and wit to the pictures. Whether it was cucumbers or a purse, if you will, I really saw how it could translate.”

But his dealer says that the biggest misconception about Mr. Lassry’s work is that it is all about allusion to advertisement, and seduction. Said Mr. Kordansky, “Commercial photography is just one aspect of his work.” Indeed, the artist, who noted he doesn’t watch TV, said his works stem less from the desire that they can solicit in others than that which he can create for himself: “They develop from my frustration with the medium of photography. I’m always trying to empty something out in order to get the passion to make pictures again.”

His male subjects often bring to the foreground homo-social narratives. For instance, a six-part set of portraits of the late actor Anthony Perkins [much of it based on material pulled from the Internet] suits Mr. Lassry’s pursuit of the pleasantly generic Hollywood hero. But his tight crops and collage techniques also double as puns on the actor’s most famous role as a psychopath and his rumored affairs with actor Tab Hunter, among others–a story line, like a rehearsal, not meant for media.

Interestinly, much of the Perkins work, and a chunk of the artist’s work, is based on material pulled from the Internet. “He’s not using the Internet as an archive, but as a naturalized, everyday experience–as ordinary as coffee in the morning,” said Ms. Ruf. Mr. Lassry’s ability to use small, neatly packed photographs speak to a day and age when we expect to see images all the time, on top of video, she said. They describe a nostalgia for a simpler time while involving really complicated and simultaneous stories.

Mr. Lassry, for his part, doesn’t differentiate between artistic media, –he makes both films and photographs, and displays them side-by-side. But he sticks with photography as his base because, he said, “to me [photography] is haunted. There is something we cannot explain.”

 

Alex Gartenfeld is editor of InterviewMagazine.com and ArtinAmericamagazine.com