Exhibition

John Cyr. Developer Trays

28 Mar 2018 – 5 May 2018

Elizabeth Houston Gallery

New York
New York, United States

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It might be difficult to imagine a truly unintentional painting, let alone one that’s a photograph. But John Cyr’s Developer Trays come quite close, notching up abstract expressionism a few degrees closer to its unconscious ambitions.

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If “form follows function” was destined to be the guiding light of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s careful typologies, then we might say “abstract form follows function” is Cyr’s own. His exacting typology of the developer tray holds the remnants of individual photographers’ printing methods in its traces—painterly expressions in scratches, stains, and patterns—on the surfaces of their unwitting plastic canvases.

The developer tray is the most unassuming of objects, and Cyr insists upon that quiet objecthood. Photographing in a uniform style, the artist is uncanny in his ability to capture its painterly abstractions and the materiality of its functional construction. This is a technique that, paradoxically, reveals the intimacy of personal artistic practice and the gravity of photographic history writ large. Cyr sought out photographers, some iconic, others virtually unknown beyond the hallowed halls of the academy, to capture a collective moment on the verge of oblivion. That moment, of course, was not slight. For over 100 years, the unobtrusive tray had held forth as the standard bearer of silver gelatin printing. We do well to remember that the developer tray had long withstood the obsolescence to which technology in our time seems perennially fated. A printer himself, Cyr is uniquely attuned to the evidence the developer tray holds as an implement of private practice. Its hues and marks are loaded.

Resembling a Rothko, Linda Connor’s deep blue tray is an inscription of the artist’s 40 years of circular agitation at the surface of print emulsion. John Draper’s, by contrast, resembles a metallic lunar plane, its layers storing bits and pieces of the silver residue that had brought into being the very first photograph of a woman hundreds of years before. It is possible, with some forensic insight, to discern the habits of the makers in the shapes and forms of the trays’ chemical paintings.But it is probably unnecessary. Cyr’s archive developed organically over time, a self-selecting history of photography that wound its way to him circuitously through connections and chance. His Developer Trays are more found objects, in that sense, than they are the careful execution of a Who’s Who of the medium or a textbook rendition of silver gelatin printing. You need not know the individual maker to appreciate the conceptual framework of the series or the beauty of any single tray. And, at the risk of sounding sentimental, they are indeed beautiful meditations on color, line, form, and feeling.

Limned with hues of orange, blue, red, green, and, yes, silver, Cyr’s Developer Trays are perhaps best appreciated for their exquisite objecthood. It is one that straddles an abstract expressionism freed from the materiality of substrata (and all intention, at last) and the insistent physical presence of the history of a medium. That paradox, after all, is key to deciphering Cyr’s found abstractions.

– Robin Day

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John Cyr

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