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Sunday, October 15, 2006


Blinded By Darkness: Iannis Delatolas

nightlight, Kouros Gallery, New York, September 14-October 14

Iannis Delatolas is a photographer who works in New York City. Born in Germany of Greek immigrant workers, his early childhood was spent in the industrial sector of Düsseldorf. His night-time photographs, made only with available natural light, without special effects, are filled with nostalgia and reverie; they demand time to be seen fully, their details yielding to a concentrated, continuing gaze. In a sense, because Delatolas makes photographic images that trade on a subdued grief, he can also be seen as participating in a particularly American kind of elegy: his images of a gas station in Brookings, Oregon, or a drive-in movie theater, or a dirt road in Vieques, Puerto Rico, have the grief-ridden melancholy of a Hopper painting, contemplating as they do waste sites or banal places that leave the viewer bereft of comfort. In his dreamlike scenarios, Delatolas visits the empty isolation of America’s postindustrial landscape, hoping for a glimpse of hope in what is both a romantic darkness and a metaphor for losing one’s way.

This is not to say that Delatolas is an artist who completely refuses solace; something is gained by the very perception of the photographs themselves, which yield their pictorial information through the course of time. The ethics of looking hard, of internalizing parts and bits of images and reading them as complete components of a shadowy composition, demands more than the casual glance of a jaded viewer. By taking his photographs in darkened light, Delatolas is already constructing an allegory of the vision with which we see the world; our view of things remains at least partially dependent on the mood we carry within us. The elegiac is in some ways central to the American esthetic (think, again, of the mood in Hopper’s canvases)—although it is not always clear what it is we should be mourning. My own hunch is that, in the face of America’s global capitalism at the start of the twenty-first century, we are grieving for a more or less complete loss of innocence. Delatolas’s images are seen through a glass darkly, and he offers little optimism except for the small pieces of light that illuminate his views of destitution and decay.

Photography itself may be the most expressive way to capture loss in art; its very nature, in which a fleeting moment is recorded seemingly objectively but actually resonant with subjectivity, enables the artist to address issues of yearning and sadness that inevitably accompany the present’s relationship to the past. It appears that we are always distressed about something; photography specifies the image but not the emotion following it, leaving our imagination to embrace the concomitant existence of two kinds of time: the recorded moment and the present recognition of that exposure to what-has-already-happened. If it is true that we are always attracted to the myth of a golden age, it is also right that we are always unable to touch that moment when the past has been redeemed by a vision, in the present, of a future that holds the promise of a brave new world. Delatolas’s images are a critique of the last gasps of the industrial landscape, depicting a kind of funerary performance of values that can no longer work their magic on the world. Indeed, the very triviality of the moments documented by the artist is a subtle subversion of the grand gesture late in a time of savage imperialism; it is not that the images are modest or self-effacing—in fact, they quietly will a vision whose application is cogent for an end-game scenario. Perhaps Delatolas is saying that he records the end of the world as we know it, suggesting a millennial view capable of effacing the darkness we have already brought into it.

In the silver gelatin print, Brookings OR (2003), Delatolas responds to a highly anonymous scene of a man leaning against a car in a gas station. Although it is night, the brilliant artificial lights illuminating the scene appear as white zones accompanied by darkness. Behind the car, on the right side of the image, is a brilliantly lit sign advertising Chevron gas, the phrase, “Food Mart,” lit up underneath it. The glowing whiteness of the signs stands out beautifully in the nighttime surrounding them, for a brilliant contrast of tonalities. Only the gas station itself, moderately lit on the left side of the image, and the late-model car on the right, are seen in a language of tonal neutrality. One thinks of the bland anonymity of Ed Ruscha’s photos of gas stations in California, but you can see a more lyrical search for expressiveness in Delatolas’s work, as if the image before you was opening up the sequence of a dream. The image’s narrative import may be freely interpreted; that’s the attraction of many of the images, which propose the content of an entire short story within the confines of a single picture. The sadness of Brookings OR results from our identification with the ambience we see—we’ve all gotten gas for the car late at night, perhaps far away from home. Isolation is palpable in much of Delatolas’s art.

St. Mary’s Drive-in (2002), a silver gelatin print 40 inches square, barely reveals a broad movie screen in the outdoors; a Ryderesque moon rides high above it. Here, the vision of the piece seems mysterious to the point of being mystical; the audience envisions the eerie presence of something apparently abandoned to the darker, deeper forces of nature. One picks out a bit of cloud cover just above the screen, while the natural light of the moon leaves a zigzag of illumination just beneath it. Nothing seems connected, but the overall feeling is enigmatic rather than tragic. A tree can be seen on the right side of the photograph; it is a shadow, a perfect silhouette, of itself. The screen’s broad rectangular form is clearly, in its regularity, a manmade artifact, while the romance of the moon and foliage underscores the persistence of the natural even in places where you least expect it. The contrast between the human and the (scarcely) visible world is intuitively rendered, with a deep feeling for things that cannot be explained.

But what is one to make of these images, blinded as they are by the lack of light? Actually, things are more complex than they seem, for the images do in fact cohere as visual statements. The presence of darkness is treated as a given, resulting in compositions that are energized by their lack of easy readability. Yet the titles give out information; there is even a political statement inherent in the name of Vieques Backroad (2004), which refers to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, the site of an American military bombing range, which was only closed and vacated because of public outcry and the mobilization of activists. In the photograph, a back road, not much more than a worn path, slightly curves as its moves to meet the darkness in the background. There is leafy foliage on the left and a telephone pole, outlined in what seems to be moonlight, on the right; no person disturbs the picture, whose ethics are understood from the name of the image alone. The notion of a path or journey ending in darkness is rich with metaphorical possibilities; in this case, Delatolas lets his title politicize his environmental view. As happens with the two photographs mentioned above, the darkness serves a momentous purpose, the light revealing only just enough of the image for us to make our way.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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