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Playing Curator in the Heat of Summer

My attention wanders at this time of year. Everything interests me—and nothing. Wafting through the galleries in a sunstruck daze, at once overstimulated and underwhelmed, I'm looking for a photograph that arrests me as completely as any random moment on the sexy summer streets. In July's usual jumble of largely themeless group shows, that picture is increasingly rare but more welcome than ever. Though the art world seems to lose focus as the season winds down, trotting out old standbys and testing new infatuations, now is the perfect time to play curator, choosing the memorable images from each show for your own imaginary exhibition. What follows is mine.

The six women photographers at Audiello Fine Art (526 West 26th Street, through July 21) divide pretty evenly between shooting stars and promising newcomers. One of those stars, Justine Kurland, provides a pair of images pitched to summer's mood of lazy, celebratory camaraderie. In one, nine young women gather on a beach at dusk, standing and sprawling near a half-demolished sand castle at water's edge. The sky, where a blimp hangs way in the distance, has turned butter yellow; the sea ripples like molten pewter; and all the figures shimmer between shadow and soft light, drifting on the current of their impromptu friendship toward another promising night. It's fully dark in Kurland's other photo, where a different group of girls comes together around a campfire in the woods. Here, too, the women glow like flickering candles, their huddled shapes picked out by the fire, which shoots off sparks as countless calligraphic squiggles and turns the center of the image into a vivid orange abstraction. Even though we know that these casually Edenic fictions were staged and cast by the photographer, their fantasy of runaway girls banding together and lighting out for the territory is awfully seductive. What Kurland imagines this band of outsiders doing with their newfound freedom remains to be seen.

Among the newcomers at Audiello, Madeline Djerejian makes the strongest impression, with a more modestly staged but equally theatrical series of people reading. In each of her four color photos, a solitary figure is curled up with a book, but none of them are reading. Instead, they all appear to have spun off into a reverie—stunned, perhaps, by the disjunction between what they've read and their own lives. The drama here is interior, but the communion between writer and reader is almost physical; even when the books have been set aside, people reach for their open pages as if severing that connection would dissolve the dream. Djerejian heightens the introspective mood by setting her readers in ordinary, if carefully cropped, interiors whose subtle blocks of color and texture contribute to a sense of intimacy. Without feeling at all contrived, her pictures capture that out-of-body moment when the reader gets so lost in the text he's on the verge of disappearing.

Sucked through Larry Sultan’s looking glass, hot sex comes out as hard work: Untitled (1999).
photo: Courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.
Sucked through Larry Sultan’s looking glass, hot sex comes out as hard work: Untitled (1999).

Djerejian's readers would find sympathetic companions in Pace/MacGill's show, titled "Photographs for Summer Reading" (32 East 57th Street, through August 30). Among them is one of a color series JoAnn Verburg made of her husband at ease in Italy. For Still Life With Jim, mounted in three separate panels, Verburg composes an interior landscape around the slumped figure of a sleeping middle-aged man in white boxer shorts. In the center panel, where her husband's body—a glossy magazine propped on his thigh—crumples in on itself, she's arranged a pear, a tomato, peaches, and two green apples in a ruffle of white sheets. Another still life rests at Jim's bare feet, where he's left a folded newspaper and a pair of reading glasses on the chenille spread. As with the other pictures in this series, the subject seems to be escape and responsibility—leisure with limitations. Unlike the imaginative transport that books offer Djerejian's readers, Jim's newspaper is an anchor in the troubled, demanding, all-too-real world. Its appearance in Verburg's vacation idylls is never incidental; paradise comes booby-trapped.

Two of the most spectacular pictures in town are in the cinematic slice-of-life mode. One, by Seamus Nicholson, a London-based photographer who specializes in charged urban scenes, steals the show at Lombard-Freid's erratic "psycho/soma" roundup (531 West 26th Street, through July 29). Nicholson's nearly five-foot-long Jason has the quietly compelling presence and offhand beauty of pictures by Nan Goldin or Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose street work has similarly manipulated spontaneity. A man walks out of a small, brightly lit grocery onto a dark sidewalk, stopping between banks of boxed fruit and vegetables to look into his blue plastic bag. It's an ordinary, immediately familiar moment heightened by Nicholson's superb handling of ambient light and deep shadow. Nothing's happening here, but the scene is ripe for noir drama, and the photographer conjures hushed anticipation from the shopper's caution, the clerk's watchfulness, even the orderly array of produce caught in the fluorescent glow.

In his slice-of-life photo at Janet Borden (560 Broadway, through July 28), Larry Sultan takes on filmmaking itself by shooting around the action on an L.A. porn set. Ken Probst and Jeff Burton have already explored this territory to startling effect, and Sultan himself used porn's sleazy suburban milieu as the site for a series of fashion photos he published last year in Vogue Hommes, but he still manages to make it new. Here, in a huge, high-gloss color print, he noses into the disorienting disarray of a scene unfolding on an enclosed, sunlit patio. A nude man stands behind a nude woman whose body hangs limply over a white wicker chair; two casually dressed men, fragmented by the picture's tight cropping, hover nearby. Because a mirrored wall takes up half the frame, the photo has a cubistic, fun-house confusion; intersecting planes shatter the image into bits, reducing the naked couple at its center to a shard no more important than the one containing the debris of Styrofoam cups and wadded-up paper towels. Sucked through Sultan's looking glass, hot sex comes out as nothing more than hard work: business as usual.

At Richard Anderson's "Living Is Easy" salon (453 West 17th Street, through July 22), Joe Ovelman takes a more kaleidoscopic view of sex, reproducing in miniature (160 by 6 inches) the wheat-pasted color-xerox installation he mounted this past April 1 on the wooden hoarding near Gagosian's 24th Street gallery. Though Ovelman's obsession is writ small here, it's still pretty potent. His unframed, 40-panel frieze includes hundreds of shots of bare-chested thugs, dark-eyed boys in bed, construction workers, a burly surfer with his board, and a slew of Latinos with their pants falling down. Like Janine Gordon's photos at Xavier LaBoulbenne, these pictures are about lust and longing, but their boy-crazy carelessness seems blissfully, dangerously unexamined in the wake of the recent melee in Central Park. With this in mind, the picture of the summer just might be Alix Lambert's Tattoo #9 at Baumgartner Gallery (418 West 15th Street, through July 29). Lambert convinced friends to let her use their skin as a canvas, then photographed the tattoos. The one that sums up our fucked-up, supermacho moment is inked onto the shaved lower belly of a man whose wiry black hair sprouts from his waistband. The message is a simple one, in squat block letters: SUCK ME.

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