All That She Wants – Exhibition Review

Published as Collin Pressler, December 2014. 

Both photography and the exhibition format lend themselves to a critique of frames. Here, a frame being a boundary that determines content – it surrounds, encloses, supports. A frame mediates, determines proximity; that is, establishes the distance between viewers and pictures.

I’ve spent some time with a recent exhibition of photographs by Ramsey Alderson, shot during the hours of darkness in the storerooms of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers here in Chicago. Exhibited at Front Room, the repurposed Ukranian Village living room of organizers Paul Levack and Steven Vainberg, All That She Wants is appropriately sparse: two framed prints and supporting takeaways (a fl yer, editioned Polaroids). The content of the photographs is consistent throughout – the inventory of the auction house; however, its treatment varies radically from frame to frame. These frames are sometimes literal, sometimes not – as local as the frame around a print, or as expanded as the physical dimensions of the exhibition space. And while we might identify them as distinct for rhetorical purposes, these frames are staggered, forming a lattice – an ecosystem of pictures.  This is a net of contexts and symbols and affects and icons, but a picture has no content in itself. In All That She Wants, content emerges as the negative space defined by such edges. While a surface read of the photographs lends itself to a critique of consumerism (coupled with the exhibition’s dubious title), Alderson’s aims appear considerably more formal in preoccupation– the assembly of an amalgam of frames and of pregnant voids. They are productively vapid.

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Ramsey Alderson, “Untitled” (2014), photo courtesy of the artist

Alderson’s ecosystem is a net of interdependent content and value determinations. I would be remiss not to mention the kindred relationship to Louise Lawler’s mid-80s auction house photographs, typified by a cool exposure of the relationships between value, frame, context, and proximity. In All That She Wants, this cloud registers as a dense, atmospheric foreground.

Louise Lawler, Etude pour La Lecture, 1923, This Drawing is for Sale, Paris (1985), photo courtesy of The Tate, London

Louise Lawler, Etude pour La Lecture, 1923, This Drawing is for Sale, Paris (1985), photo courtesy of The Tate, London

I have been easily seduced by the range of operations represented in Alderson’s pictures, and in the larger exhibition context – but not for some bright clarity or clean thru-line. Indeed, enigma does this show a great service. Shadow is a significant character of its sex appeal; and so, it is not my aim to illuminate totally. In lieu of a thesis-proper, I have prepared three “meditations” on All That She Wants, loosely related to a theme of “frames.”

1.) The inclusion of the flyer and Polaroids as non-supplemental, core exhibition content requires that they be subject to aesthetic and critical consideration. (see: Joesph Grigely, Exhibition Prosthetics [2010])

2.) Imagine a glistening eel or gun-metal sea bass sliding off the urgently painted table cloth of a largely obscure Manet. This painting pitches forward, pushing chins up and knees to the floor. This is not so plainly the Modernist frame as an invitation to fellatio, a symbolic function of space whereby elevation corresponds to spiritual levity (rings of angels, etc.) or the organization of power; it is the uniform, downward slide of the picture’s contents, an “invitation to lowness” [1], an emptying out of content.

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Edouard Manet, “Still Life With Fish,” Oil on Canvas (1864) [Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago]

3.) A nude bronze – a David, Apollo, or similarly ubiquitous figurine – is center frame. He is situated atop a scalloped end-table, one hand on hip, the other sort of hanging out in space level with his shoulder, a tag dangling from his wrist: that kind of boyish, slutty contrapose. This David and his companion pieces (a pair of highly ornamented candelabra, a gilded wardrobe or china cabinet, chandelier, and painted porcelains) share a subdivision within the auction house’s floor-plan. These showrooms are set apart by partial walls. At the prone angel assumed by these frames, the rafters of the auction house are visible, a triangle of gold lines and velvety black voids where the camera’s flash drops off into darkness. The picture’s contents move in a downward flow by and large determined by a streak of light across the David’s crotch.

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Ramsey Alderson, “Untitled” (2014), photo courtesy of the artist

In these frames, I am privy to the disarray of the auction house as it exists between its public events. Its rarefied interior takes on the air of a common garage.  The literal contents of these photographs are also presented across a range of display methods, lending them a rich instability. Alderson’s exhibition flyer resembles a crisp page from the auction house’s catalogue – objects are offered up flat, distinct and uniformly lit – as a kind of evidence photoshopped onto a stark white ground. Despite their evidentiary character, the auction house renders these ornaments and bureaus and candlesticks as awkward and fantastical. The objects are denied a native pictorial habitat. If “All That She Wants” it built up out of shifting frames, it can contain only moving targets.


[1] Kraus, Rosalind & Yves-Alain Bois. Formless: A User’s Guide. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1997.