Art: Review: Beneath the Roses

Gregory Crewdson's photographs explore life's underbelly

Jul 9, 2008 at 2:06 pm
The Artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, White Cube, London and Gagosian, Los Angeles

Gregory Crewdson's cinematic photography, including this untitled piece at CAM, is meticulously crafted.

To say that Gregory Crewdson goes to great lengths to produce a photograph is a gross understatement.

Each photograph in the current exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which features five excerpts from his recent series Beneath the Roses, took months of planning, a crew of more than 40 people to execute, and 40 to 50 separate shots to create the final, tightly focused compositions.

The huge photographs, each more than 7 feet wide, demand attention. They beckon us to enter a creepy yet achingly beautiful and oddly familiar world and challenge us to piece together their mysterious narratives. Influenced by Hollywood's disquieting film directors David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock along with the blockbuster sensibility of Steven Spielberg and the melancholy paintings of Edward Hopper, Crewdson calls his images "the inverse of the American dream."

When his photos appeared at London's White Cube gallery in 2005, the British Sunday Times Magazine called his aesthetic a hybrid of "the all-American eye of the painter Norman Rockwell" and "the brooding menace of Norman Bates."

Take the first photograph (all are untitled) in the show. An adolescent girl sits on the single swing of a broken-down play-set in the backyard of a trailer. A woman looks out the window in the girl's direction, and both appear haunted and forlorn. Mist rises from the trailer's roof, and the first glow of dawn (or is it dusk?)

spreads across the sky above the shadowy trees. The psychological tension is thick enough to cut with a knife, but what really keeps you looking are the details — abandoned toys strewn about, light coming from the neighbor's window revealing a slightly askew blind, a torn yellow caution tape wound around the trunk of a small tree.

Crewdson plants questions in our mind: What has happened or what is about to happen? In all five photographs, light suggests potential and the past — dawn as the aftermath of night and the pregnant lull before daybreak or twilight as the prelude to darkness.

Crewdson unleashes his cinematic vision at found locations or on a soundstage. To scout locations like the trailer park, he drives around small towns until he spots one, and the picture emerges from there. His staff, which includes individuals as specialized as a "Greensman, Snowmaker and Tree Surgeon," spends countless hours altering the location, placing props, removing street signs, arranging for street closures, hiring and positioning actors and even getting the fire department to wet down streets or, in one case, burn down a building.

Crewdson conceptualizes the interiors, strange brews borne completely from his imagination, and his staff builds them from scratch. The sole interior photograph in the CAM exhibition depicts a decaying kitchen complete with an old pot of spaghetti on the stove, mildew on the tile, open shoeboxes on the floor, bundles of old papers and letters scattered about, abandoned cigarettes perched on two ashtrays and a nearly empty glass of what appears to be whiskey. Beyond the open kitchen door stands a man, eerily lit from below, transfixed on an open cellar door.

The scene suggests some sort of forbidden activity, a search for something lost or perhaps your average, run-of-the-mill obsessive behavior.

Each scene requires specifically cast actors, and Crewdson selects them based on emotional rather than visual qualities. In a recent Aperture magazine online feature, his casting director Juliane Hiam said, "It's almost as if he does not see the surface of people at all. ... There's a deeper quality that he is looking to capture."

To that end, Crewdson's photographs provide the unarguably compelling experience of seeing beyond the ordinary into a deeper psychological state.