When we drift through city streets on our way to work, or out to drinks with friends, or through a battery of galleries, we do it like distracted ghosts, only half present. Maybe we are in the thrall of the tractor beam glow of a smart phone, or we are thinking about a particularly delicious sandwich, or are gripped with anxiety about the shambolic state of the world. Whatever the case, we don't really look. We don't notice the way that cracks skitter across the surface of the sidewalk, overlook the way bricks are mortared, or tiles laid, or the way that elegant holes are jigsawed out of chipboard construction hoarding to accommodate unruly standpipes. Greenbaum has a keen eye for these lost swatches of the urban fabric, and he captures them with his camera.
But Greenbaum is not strictly, or really even principally, a photographer. Initially trained as a painter, he now avails himself of a number of industrial processes—some dated, some bleeding edge—to materialize and embellish the images he captures on the street, producing works that are resolutely hybrid; they are neither photography, nor sculpture, nor painting, but often some stew of all three. The works in this exhibition, for instance, start as iPhone snaps, but are manipulated in Photoshop to kick their colors into scorching, acidic registers. The resultant images are printed on sheets of plastic using a high-tech flatbed printer, and then melted into low reliefs on a vacuum-forming machine in a Midtown Manhattan shop that fabricates sets for television. But unlike the ersatz brick walls and dead end doors that the shop usually produces, the topographies of Greenbaum's works, which are made from a motley collection of building materials that he molds his plastic prints atop of, don't always conform to the images that he prints on them. Instead, the vacuum forming adds extra compositional flourishes—cracks, indents, even what look like brushstrokes—that playfully tug on the eye, muddying the distinction between the photograph and the relief, the depicted and the actual. They gently provoke the question: what is real?
This ontological confusion is, of course, a standard-issue gripe about all photography, now that is has been transformed into an endlessly manipulable stream of zeros and ones. But what did photography ever tell us, anyway? Looking at Greenbaum's newest work, I recall the most evocative description that Charles Peirce gives for his fussy, academic term "indexicality", which is often used to describe the medium’s now-outdated relation to the truth: an index, he says, is like a footprint; it is a direct record of presence. Similarly, like sand impressed with the passage of strolling beachgoers, Greenbaum's vacuum forms bear traces of the material substrates onto which they were molded. However, this play with impression and indexicality reads as a kind of wry joke. Both the building materials used as the substrates and the riotously colored images of the built landscape that are molded upon them seem to announce nothing more than their stubborn, blank existence. They are what they are. But look a little closer: many of the images sport the recondite glyphs that are sprayed on walls and sidewalks, that instruct the initiated about the tangle of infrastructure concealed behind and beneath them. Both literally and metaphorically, we are being directed to consider the complex life that exists beneath surface appearance (of buildings, of images, and, by extrapolation, of people). This calls to mind the famous slogan that was painted across the walls of Paris during the student uprising of 1968, which spoke so poetically of the possibility that lays in wait behind the scrim of the ordinary: "Beneath the paving stones, the beach!"
- Chris Wiley
Ethan Greenbaum (b. 1979, Tom’s River, US) lives in Queens, US. He has had solo exhibitions at Super Dakota, Brussels, BE; Pact Galerie, Paris, FR, Halsey McKay, East Hampton, US, and The Suburban, Chicago, US. He has exhibited in group exhibitions at Palazzo Fruscione, Salerno, IT; Luce Gallery, Turin, IT; Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, US; Hauser and Wirth, New York, US; and Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, US. He received his Master’s in Fine Arts at Yale University under the direction of Peter Halley. First Surface is the artist’s first solo exhibition at Lyles & King.