How Davis & Langdale’s new show of photographs by the British artist Charles Jones (1866-1959) differs from the Jones exhibition the gallery mounted last spring, I couldn’t say. For all I know, it consists of the same pictures of flowers, fruits and vegetables; that’s the way it feels. Does it matter? Maybe. Certainly the photographs of this “outsider genius saved from obscurity by chance discovery,” as the hurried subtitle of a recently published monograph has it, are of a piece.
A gardener by trade, Jones kept his photographs secret during his lifetime; they didn’t come to light until 1981, some 22 years after his death. The story of how they were found is irresistible, at least for those of us who enjoy a good yarn about buried treasure and good bargains. The Irish photographer and art historian Sean Sexton noticed Jones’ gelatin-silver prints in a trunk he happened on at a London flea market. Recognizing them as something out of the ordinary, he promptly bought them for a song. The identity of the “C.J.” whose initials appeared on the back of the pictures remained a mystery-that is, until Shirley Sadler, having seen Mr. Sexton discussing the photos on the BBC, identified “C.J.” as her grandfather. She didn’t remember Jones taking photographs, though. She remembered him using glass-plate negatives to protect plants in the garden.
What distinguishes Jones’ photographs is an unnerving fleshiness that’s botanically accurate and also, obviously, a case of displaced eroticism. A velvety, tactile surface makes the photos look weirdly glamorous: A picture of linnea double brings to mind Jean Harlow at her most lustrous. It doesn’t matter what the subject is-turnips, peas, or any number of flowers denoted by their Latin name-each picture depicts an object that, having been uprooted and tenderly set on display, is just past its prime. The work is haunting because it seems to capture life draining out of its subject even as we look at it. Time and mortality are a significant component of Jones’ work, along with sensuality.
An exquisite morbidity, then, defines his art. That’s why this show is indistinguishable from the last: The specific images are all washed in the same mood. Then again, if Davis & Langdale had mounted the pictures with more care-the frames are ill-proportioned and look recycled-maybe Jones’ turnips and tomatoes would declare their individuality more distinctly. Even so, the photographs are a disquieting gift lovingly offered up by the artist. Does it matter that they feel like more of the same? Not at all.
Charles Jones (1866-1959): Photographs is at Davis & Langdale, 231 East 60th Street, until May 3.
New Yorkers interested in the state of contemporary realist painting are advised to seek out the paintings and drawings of James Valerio at the George Adams Gallery. It should be understood, however, that Mr. Valerio doesn’t supply the last word on the genre; the last rites, maybe . He’s a photo-realist for whom every object-whether it be a nude woman bearing quinces, a grimy trail of suds left by a mop, or a wall covered with innumerable layers of paint-is an occasion for the pictorial equivalent of taxidermy. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; it could very well be a statement of purpose. When Mr. Valerio depicts a human head wrapped in aluminum foil ensconced on the top shelf of his kitchen cabinet, he underscores that painting is, for him, a kind of postmortem. Not every image is as ghoulishly heavy-handed, but each is marked by the clinician’s touch-cold, exacting and flatly stated. Seen up close, the canvases disappoint: They’re immaculate but without body. The drawings, on the other hand, generate some warmth. The minute accumulation of pencil marks provides evidence that Mr. Valerio’s heart beats more loudly when his hand is right in there.
James Valerio: Paintings 1993-2003 is at the George Adams Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, seventh floor, until May 31.
Blots, Blobs and Drips
One of the primary responsibilities of a painter is to establish a tension between the surface of the canvas and the events taking place within it, between material and illusion. It’s there, this fundamental relationship, in the abstract paintings of Peggy Cyphers, but in a curious and muffled manner. Her recent series of mixed-media pictures, collectively titled Girl in the City , on exhibit at the Proposition/Ellen Donahue and Ronald Sosinski, contain a variety of painterly tacks: blots, blobs and drips, fluttering brushstrokes and runs of thinned acrylic. The pictures are fluid and open, recalling the heavens and the sea, the free-floating character of microscopic phenomena and colorfield painting. Surrealism comes to mind, too, stripped of the usual symbolic and psychological heavy breathing. Automatism is, for Ms. Cyphers, less a vehicle for tapping into the subconscious than a means of getting a picture rolling.
The paintings, though airy, are obdurate in their physicality. Vistas that hint at translucency, atmosphere and humidity are themselves scrabbled, gritty and parched. (One of the media Ms. Cyphers mixes is sand.) The tension between surface and illusion is tweaked, yet not as tautly as it could be: The pictures smother, rather than animate, the incidents buried in them. This isn’t the case with Future Byzantium-Turner (1998-2003) or Sante Fe (2002), both of which are as different from each other as they are from the rest of the work. The former is churning and malevolent; the latter fragile and evanescent. Both possess a pliability that Girl in the City only wishes for. Sante Fe is particularly good, a picture as gentle and unkempt as an eddy of dust seen in a beam of light. Did Ms. Cyphers paint it in Sante Fe? If so, maybe she needs to get out to New Mexico more often.
Peggy Cyphers: Paintings and Digital Clones is at the Proposition/Ellen Donahue and Ronald Sosinski, 559 West 22nd Street, until May 17.