Laura Letinsky: Hardly More Than Ever

at the Renaissance Society, through April 19

Among the objects in Laura Letinsky’s luminous, ravishing landscapes are crumbs, flower petals, broken goblets, candy bar wrappers, crumpled napkins, stained tablecloths, orange peels, dried-out lemons, fleshy cantaloupes, raspberries, a red plastic bottle cap, and an aluminum pull tab from a pop can.

Shot between 1997 and 2004, her series of 31 untitled C-prints makes no show of documenting turn-of-the-century revelry: Letinsky is not telling us that she loves to entertain and hates to clean up. Yet “Hardly More Than Ever” seems to savor ruins graced by morning window light in the interval between her guests’ departure and her housekeeper’s arrival. Maybe she’s a voyeur or archaeologist of the mess in other people’s places–a natural follow-up to her earlier series, “Venus Inferred,” consisting of studies of couples in their bedrooms during moments of intimacy, including poses of lovemaking. There are no human figures in her new series, but I pretend that they’re asleep elsewhere in the house or apartment and that Letinsky has quietly let herself in to take shots of the leftovers from last night’s party, setting up her four-by-five-inch camera on a tripod for exposures of up to half an hour.

Letinsky’s studies of couples felt like freeze-frames from melodramas by an independent filmmaker: the highly orchestrated details of posture and decor implied resonant narratives. The book of this series contains an interview with Letinsky, who calls the photographs of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin “gorgeously impure.” This apt expression applies not only to the disarray of the lives on display but also to those diaristic artists’ ambiguous status as “pure” documentarians. “Gorgeously impure” also conveys the look of Letinsky’s limpid still lifes of messes–a series that might be called “Chaos Inferred.”

Letinsky borrows the “Hardly More Than Ever” line from a 1914 Gertrude Stein prose poem, “Tender Buttons,” divided under the headings “objects,” “food,” and “rooms.” Here Stein itemizes the domestic mis-en-scene of spoons and saucers also found in Letinsky’s prints, cryptically rhapsodizing: “Light curls have no more curliness than soup” and “Sugar is not a vegetable.” Stein’s poetry may be opaque, but Letinsky’s prints are pristine, rampant with indelible delicacy and indirect debauchery. In the light cast by “Venus Inferred,” the pair of spoons lying across each other in “Untitled #67” (2003) could be lovers. And in “Untitled #54” (2002) two spoons–one facing up, the other down–rest on a white plate with a glistening red lollipop nearby, a composition that suggests a sublimated erotic geometry.

Letinsky affects a geological design in “Untitled #22” (2000), where an archipelago of peony petals and a spiral of crumbs share a white tablecloth with a white saucer. In other photographs, cliff-edge scenarios suggest a sly narrative of peril. A glass of brown liquid in “Untitled #53” (2002) seems about to topple off a round table. On the opposite side of the table is a matching chocolate candy bar whose raised, wrinkled wrapper looks like a breaking wave. In between, perched on the table’s far rim, are two tiny raspberries. “Untitled #49” (2002) looks especially precarious. A small white porcelain bowl overloaded with peaches sits on a white plastic cutting board that hangs off the edge of a narrow board draped in a white cloth. A white coffee cup sits on the other edge of the draped board. A second look makes it clear that the bowl and cup are not items casually abandoned on a piece of furniture but objects carefully, portentously arranged.

What interests Letinsky more than documentary purism–the goal or pretense of so many photographers–is late-Renaissance northern European still life painting. She refers to such canvases with a slightly distorted perspective made possible by her view camera, subtly upsetting the spatial depth so objects appear a bit too far from or near one another. What might have been an imperfect mastery of technique in her Dutch predecessors becomes a clever nod to a genre. And in “Untitled #88” (2003) she tweaks convention: a traditional still life displays items, even if in studied disarray, so each is in view. But here Letinsky precisely aligns her objects to thwart the viewer. In the rear is a torte crowned with green mold, only partially visible because it’s right behind a white teacup. Then comes a broken glass, and in front of that is a red-stained white napkin cascading over the table’s edge. Even more overtly painterly are the hues and shadows of folds in the tablecloths hanging in the foreground and of the walls behind her tableaux, exhibiting exquisite turquoise and pink blushes that make no sense in terms of daylight optics.

The Renaissance Society excels at conceptualist exhibitions catering to those interested in theory, so Letinsky’s show is a rarity–a pleasure to the eye. Her reference to Stein invites viewers to immerse themselves in her voluptuous, if occasionally dessicated or overripe, subjects. Missing is the Christian allegory–as well as the fish, fowl, and game and the occasional fly, lizard, or human skull–sometimes found in her 17th-century predecessors. Instead her photographs feed the imagination, prompting the viewer to muse about inanimate objects. Or as art historian Anne Hollander put it in Moving Pictures, writing about an 18th-century French painting: “This tiny onion, what is it thinking? How does it feel to sit alone, bathed in the light of this incandescent tumbler?”