ESSAY BY PETER FRANK
NICOLE LANDAU: PHOTOGRAPHY AS PAINTING
By Peter Frank
In technical terms, Nicole Landau is, and has always been, a photographer. The camera is her instrument of choice and the photographic print her optical field. Landau’s vision, however, is expansive, sensuous, and rooted in structure and rhythm rather than in image, distancing her from the traditional – and indeed mechanical – motivations of photography. While her works value and depend on visual qualities she finds in the “real world” – surface textures, common objects, recessional spaces – they do not turn these qualities into subjects. Rather than amplify such elements, her artworks dissolve their particularities into abstractions, and it is this visual essence that provides the building blocks for her various series. In other words, Nicole Landau thinks like, works like, and regards the world like a painter – a painter with the lens.
Landau’s claim to the condition of painting would seem to reside most evidently in her frequent employment of large, even mural-size scale. But it is not her resort to that scale per se, but her ability to fill it – indeed, to need to work in those dimensions – that ties Landau to the aesthetics of painting. She works at sizes larger than human not simply because she can, but because her compositions demand it. Attractive enough at a standard scale (with the smallest operating like sketches rather than as miniaturizations), Landau’s compositions reach their full potential, part non-objective energy, part architectural monumentality, when filling the space of abstract expressionism.
That space, the beautiful and terrible void posited by postwar American artists, needs to be described in terms that allow us to enter it even as it maintains its indifference to us. And Landau, using photographic means, provides that description. She oscillates deftly between crisp outline and blurred mid-distance, even within structures that present no depth whatsoever, so as to evoke painterly texture behind or even at the mega-photographs’ glossy surface. Color, too, becomes a tool for the rendition of form and rhythm. In her latest series, the Temples of Time, for instance, the myriad metallic slats (abstracted by Landau from a worn auto-body shop gate) that comprise the seemingly kinetic sheets of dark and light are subtly tinged with a spectral variety of colors, amplifying their delicate and fugitive presence and enhancing their seeming kinesis. What could have been a stark, high-contrast capture of light and shadow has been turned instead into a contemplation of the passage of time. Those embedded colors help Landau convince us we are watching a day unfold.
Landau employs color more overtly – and, if anything, in a yet more painterly way – in series such as the Portals and the related New City. Color sets overall tonality, providing a ground for the highly active figures to interact. Here, she emphasizes presence over span, relying on a particular device, an orbital form (originally derived from weathered doorknobs) floated in a shallow space just behind the picture plane, to constitute the heart of her imagery. The New City pictures show the device beginning to clarify itself behind and among equally assertive irregular rectangular forms; the Portals, by contrast, are built more or less entirely of, and on, that device.
Nicole Landau is not a painter, of course, she is a genuine photographer. She talks excitedly about going out to the city streets looking for real-life textures and tones she can capture with the camera, just as If she were Harry Callahan or Aaron Siskind. Like those masters, however, Landau’s art transcends the mechanics and the traditions of photography even while acknowledging them. Painting is the discipline from which Callahan and Siskind took their readiest cues, and, similarly, painting is the art Landau conjures most directly in her photography.
PETER FRANK is Associate Editor for Fabrik magazine and Contributing Editor for art ltd. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and the L. A. Weekly. He has served as editor for THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, as well as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum. Frank studied art history at Columbia University in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News.