Roe Ethridge is taking Cincinnati by storm, even if it is a rather quiet storm. His exhibition, “Nearest Neighbor,” at the Contemporary Arts Center, his first-ever museum survey in the United States, fills two floors of the Zaha Hadid building. “It seemed as if there were no right angles. When I first walked in I wondered how we’d put a photo show in here,” recalls Ethridge of the unusually formed gallery spaces that are neither rectangular nor square.
Working with New York-based curator and FotoFocus artistic director, Kevin Moore, Ethridge hung the work in an elegant way, creating subtle dialogues between various series that have been made over the years. Ranging in dates from 1999 until the present, the photographs contain particular symbols that have carried through over time, and the domestic scenarios he has captured are based largely on his own experience.
“One of the overarching themes of the show really breaks down to one line. When someone asks me, ‘What is the show about?’ I can answer, ‘It’s about being a photographer living and working in New York City in 2000-whatever,’ ” says Ethridge, who’s noted for his experience in both the commercial and fine art world. “I do work with fashion brands and do commercial photography, as well as my art projects that sometimes can look really commercial. And sometimes the commercial stuff strips away the veneer of a commercial project. It’s not necessarily to make it balanced, it just happens. There are these two trajectories and they often intertwine.” This is one of the genuine statements that also translates through his visual, two-dimensional dialogue of the work. Even if his images can appear a bit tongue-in-cheek, they truly capture a moment in time—and if not real time, then an honest imitation of real life.
Looking at the exhibition, it is easy to see why he has been a consistent force in contemporary photography. His vision is direct yet also delicately uses technology, such as Photoshop, to occasionally intervene, diverting from the proposed sense of reality a photograph often offers. Standing in front of 63 prints it’s impossible to somehow not feel connected to these images. It’s as if he is able to create a false sense of nostalgia by tapping into his own past—at times present—and weaving a large enough net to capture a particular time of the American psyche. In series with titles such as Shelter Island, Sanctuary, Neighbor and Nearest Neighbor, it doesn’t matter if the viewer has been to these places or if they even exist: It’s a direct path to a feeling that is indeed very human and in the end, about connecting people. This could also be said about his fashion photography for Gucci, Kenzo, Calvin Klein, Christopher Kane and others. What he brings to commercial jobs is the same aesthetic that he imparts to fine art projects, and it is here where the work intersects. Regarding the lens, his focus remains the same: to make a good picture. Using the body and landscape—clothed or lined with sand—whether to sell an idea, an item of clothing or a nostalgic perspective, this vision is quite specific.
Born is 1969, he generationally just barely squeaks by as the figurative offspring of the Pictures Generation. The photographs in “Nearest Neighbor” bring to mind some of the layered simplicity of Sarah Charlesworth, Jack Goldstein and Robert Longo, but where the Pictures Generation have an unspoken darkness just under the surface, Ethridge makes work that is joyous, whether authentic or proposed. “It was just far enough in the past that it was the most recent photo history that could be taught when I was at school,” says Ethridge of the Pictures Generation. “I took a couple of years and didn’t go to school for a while and then in the ’90s we started seeing it and it became part of the education.”
Several of the smaller galleries at the Contemporary Arts Center offer a refuge of sorts for visitors to slip into and have a more intimate experience with the Ethridge exhibition. One of them is dedicated to the artist’s daughter, who is now nine. The photographs—including a screenshot of an iPhone selfie (taken by his daughter), a photograph of his then pregnant wife, Nancy, a digital collage, and a candid photo of the artist’s childhood refrigerator—all form a loose narrative, erasing any commercial relevance in favor of a glimpse inside a man. In most instances, artwork can be either as complicated or simplistic as we hope for in a particular moment. To some extent, Ethridge, who represents himself in still-life photographs as fish roe, is giving us the clues as to who and what he is. It just depends if the person on the other side of the frame has the wherewithal to put the pieces together.