Free Radicals
Elad Lassry’s Hermetic Photographic Works

Cool, puzzling, seductive: Elad Lassry’s photographs are too perfect to be true. Whether he “portrays” the Hollywood actor Anthony Perkins or decorative gourds and cats, the Los Angeles-based Israeli is concerned with seeing per se, with our perception and interpretation of images. Now, a selection of Lassry’s works can be seen at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in the exhibition “Photo-Poetics.” Achim Drucks on one of the most interesting protagonists of a new kind of conceptual photographic art.
The man who was Norman Bates: Playing the leading role in Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary thriller Psycho, Anthony Perkins became the epitome of a psychopath. Only rarely in the history of cinema has an actor merged with his role to such a degree. Elad Lassry’s Portrait, Baby Blue (2008) is based on a typical publicity photo of Perkins that must have been taken around 1960, the year Psycho was first shown in movie theaters. But there is no trace of Norman Bates or the other labile anti-hero that Perkins had played previously. Instead, the photo presents the actor—who in this phase of his life exclusively had affairs with men—in a completely different role, as the ideal stepson standing in front of a friendly blue background.
 
What do we actually see when we view Lassry’s photo? A portrait, as the title suggests? If so, it is definitely not a genre-typical “psychological penetration” of Anthony Perkins. Nor does the title reveal who we are looking at. Viewers who don’t know Perkins perhaps see a sunny boy in retro styling. Film fans probably see both the actor and Norman Bates, perhaps as an embarrassed young man with a timid smile, perhaps in the role of his knife-wielding mother. Like all of Lassry’s works, Portrait, Baby Blue is only clear at first glance.
 
Lassry has dedicated several works to Anthony Perkins. Portrait 1 (Silver) is based on a publicity shot for his film Tall Story, a romantic comedy made right before Psycho in which he plays the somewhat naïve star of a college basketball team alongside Jane Fonda. Perkins is a perfect motif for the 1977-born artist. This is not only because a psychopath lurks behind the stereotypical sunny boy, but is due to Perkin’s ambivalent sexuality, “forbidden” in the early 1960s, which makes him desirable to both women and men. Lassry likes to talk about the nervousness that characterizes his images. “A nervous picture is one that makes your faculties fail, when your comfort about having visual information, or about knowing the world, is somehow shaken.” He works with material from magazines such as Life and Playboy, as well as with pictures he’s taken himself or commissioned to professional animal photographers.
 
While Lassry’s motifs range from sea lions and red cabbage to nudes seen from behind, his photo works bear his unmistakable stamp due to their radiant colors, which can also be found in the frames, and to their uniform format of 11 x 14 in. Conceptual rigidity meets candy-colored kitsch, seductiveness meets ugliness. Like the works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Reyle, they are appealing, yet at the same time slimy and repulsive. In a world in which so-called “conceptual” art has long since become a luxury good, Lassry stages it that way. And in a short period of time, his career has skyrocketed. At the age of 20, he moved from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles to study film and art, completing his first degree at the University of Southern California in 2007. He had his first solo show in 2008 at the Art Institute in Chicago, followed by his first retrospective at Kunsthalle Zurich in 2010 and an exhibition and performance project in the New York art space The Kitchen in 2012.
 
Lassry has constantly expanded the spectrum of media he uses. In his drawings, which include Decorated Eggs, Candles (Centerpiece) and Frying Pan, Lemon, Eggs (2011) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, he continues his engagement with the still life. The arrangements of decorative art pieces, dishes, and foods recall pictures from old interior-design magazines whose staged photographs reflected the American middle class’s idea of good taste. He has also made films in which he transforms ballet performances into a series of abstract pictorial compositions and has created minimalist objects that vacillate between sculpture and furniture. Lassry is one of the most prominent young artists working today. He lives with a Chihuahua, two poodles, and two cats in Hollywood Hills.
 
His photographic works convey a sense of the perfection of Hollywood movies. No matter whether he shows “Colorado’s Handsome Supermodel” Trae Austin Pflueger, decorative gourds, or, as in one of his works for Photo Poetics, the current show at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, a Bengal cat—the objects in his pictures look at once hyper-real and absolutely artificial. His “portraits” do not show personalities, but desirable surfaces; they are still lifes rather than character studies. With their monochromatic backgrounds and pedestals, on which he places lipstick, glass figures, and painted eggs, his images recall professional product photographs. “When I was starting out, conceptual photography had become something that had to be amateur-like, that had to be black-and-white, or photocopied, or really not an object in order to be taken seriously. It had to work against technical mastery,” explained Lassry in a conversation with Ryan Trecartin, whom he showed with in the trailblazing exhibition Younger than Jesus in New York’s New Museum. “My work (...) does look highly familiar and accessible. It does look like it's already ‘solved at first sight.’ It does look like it's part of a larger industry. There are all these clues in the initial interaction with the work that offer a safe space, and of course, they collapse very quickly, depending on how much you engage with the work.”
 
This is precisely what constitutes the fascination of his impeccable fetishes: they show very simple things, yet still raise questions. Due to the eye-catching frame, their ambiguity begins on the formal level. “I don't think of them as photographs. I think of them as objects. I think of them as something that is suspended between a sculpture and an image.” The frame acts as a kind of display case in which Lassry presents the respective motif. In his latest works, such as Untitled (Woman, Blond) (2013), which can be seen in Photo-Poetics, he pushes the object nature of the images even more, applying a kind of silk curtain that covers a part of the motif. And for the 2015 series Untitled (Swimmers), he has had his photographs encased in acrylic glass. In an age when photographs are omnipresent and can be taken effortlessly on a Smartphone and sent immediately, he isolates individual pictures and puts them up for discussion as objects. “The photograph—the finished work—for me is also a display. It’s allowed to move aside and to become a shelf or a pedestal for a viewer’s mental images, or the multiplicity or ‘ghosting’ that is within one picture,” he says.
 
Compared to most works by contemporary art photographers, Lassry’s are small. The handy size of a magazine page is his preferred format, “working against the sublime and working against this genre of photography, the Dusseldorf school, like Andreas Gursky, this idea of taking up with painting, having this effect that you‘re taken over by the photography.” Along with artists such as Anne Collier, Roe Ethridge, and Annette Kelm, Lassry represents a new kind of conceptual studio photography that, with its hermetic still-life character, stands in the tradition of modernism and transports the cool style of New Objectivity to the present. At the same time, Lassry follows in the footsteps of the so-called “Pictures Generation” around Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, who in the 1970s began appropriating motifs from magazines, films, and television. By investigating the power of photographs, they exposed mechanisms of consumption, lust, and representation.
 
But Lassry is concerned with fundamental experiences and insights—our perception and interpretation of everyday images, which are never clear-cut, but always have hidden meanings and connotations. Perhaps that is why he repeatedly shows animals. Like images, they are omnipresent, yet we don’t really understand them. He has often called his works “free radicals,” which are unstable, highly reactive oxygen molecules. They can cause oxidative stress, a chain reaction in which free radicals combine with existing molecules, giving rise to dysfunctional molecules and new free radicals. Lassry’s nervous works also set such chain reactions into motion, culminating perhaps in the insight that we shouldn’t believe everything we see.
 
Photo Poetics - An Anthology
7/10 – 8/30/2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Berlin

11/20/2015 – 3/23/2016
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York