New York CityMiguel Abreu
Times Square Times (Kodak All-Stars)
November 14, 2020 – January 14, 2021
The orgy of artificial light and advertising causes most visitors to tilt their heads skyward as they drift through Times Square. Despite, or perhaps because of this maximalist effort above our heads, Yuji Agematsu remains attuned to the peripheral drama unfolding at street level. Over the course of four years during the mid-2000s, the artist took hundreds of 35mm photographs during nightly walks through Midtown Manhattan’s most exalted intersection. The resulting images form the basis of his third solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Six slide projectors cycle through 382 images in a darkened gallery, accompanied by a looping soundtrack of field recordings of urban ambiance. Times Square Times (Kodak All-Stars) marks the consolidation of a lesser-known part of Agematsu’s practice. His celebrated sculptures present detritus collected during walks as elegant fossils of a consumerist empire. As a cycle of fleeting images, this work emphasizes the visual curiosity that drives Agematsu’s decades-long relationship with the ultimate specimen: New York City.
The pictures in this show imply a specific way of moving through the city. New Yorkers are notoriously fast walkers, but these images demonstrate a willingness to linger, crouch, and study filthy surfaces. Many of Agematsu’s subjects reside on the ground, and he returns to them throughout the cycle. Pieces of litter floating in puddles, manhole covers, and wet asphalt receive special attention from his lens. Crosswalks are also a favorite, the reflective white paint splitting apart like chunks of the Arctic ice pack. The scale of these topographies changes with projection and the generosity of one’s imagination. Frothy liquids constitute another theme within this work, and the artist uses these fortuitous spills to capture the reflected glow of the city. Bubbles and gritty pavement distribute the assertiveness of neon lights into a hundred tiny points of reflected intensity. When people appear in Agematsu’s photos, the frame is often tilted and the subjects in motion. These are not portraits; the people are part of the city. The same goes for the police officers whose presence in Times Square cannot go unnoticed. The artist does not seem to dwell on faces any more than he does on a plastic bag floating in brownish water. In fact, the wrinkles of the discarded shopping bag read more clearly than the faces of any people who happen to pass through the frame.
The slideshow is well-suited to a subject as dynamic as Times Square and to Agematsu’s photographic inclinations. His subjects are almost always contingent moments— a wisp of steam emerging from a sewer, for example—and so they make sense as a fleeting stream of images. These are visual propositions for our consideration. After a few seconds, the carousel advances and a new slide drops into the projector, replacing a brief interval of darkness with a new picture. In one room, two projectors are installed next to each other, allowing their images to produce temporary diptychs. They don’t always sync up, but the arrangement yields some delightful pairings like the impression of a boot heel in wet concrete next to a ghostly green face. The gritty texture of concrete mingling with the grain of 35mm film creates a pervasive haze. Projecting slides also allows Agematsu to experiment with procedural abstractions that would be too saccharine if memorialized in the form of a glossy print. He creates luscious and chaotic double exposures by layering two slides into one slot. Many of these include the glowing ribbons of light that come from moving the camera while photographing at night. This analog psychedelia is compelling because it is brief. These more playful images reinforce the impression that Agematsu’s images directly address his interests. They derive strength from the simplicity of their approach, freewheeling yet focused.
The attraction that Agematsu has to his subjects does not amount to an agenda, and this is a major strength of his work. One particularly stunning slide depicts what looks like the contents of an entire salad bar emptied onto the sidewalk. Bright red cherry tomatoes punctuate the green and beige pile. The camera’s flash renders crisp edges, giving this mound a vividly textured appearance. Besides looking fantastic projected onto the gallery wall, this photograph is remarkable for how it refrains from passing judgement on its subject. Dumping food on the street is doubly wicked in a country with rates of child hunger like we have in the US. And yet, Agematsu does not hesitate to indulge in the beauty of this scene. Nor does he attempt to enlist this raunchy still life in a critique of our wasteful civilization. It is difficult to make photographic work on the streets of New York City that eludes moralization in this way; the anarchic generosity of his observations feels so refreshing because of how accustomed we are to being manipulated by images. Agematsu’s work has the effect of stripping away the layers of skepticism and detachment that accumulate as a defense against overstimulation. Seven cigarette butts floating in a dirty puddle might not strike us as an exquisite occasion for a photograph, but what harm is there in entertaining the possibility? How energizing it must feel to be unconstrained by aesthetic propriety.