Janet Malcolm

Davis & Langdale, New York, NY

by Richard Speer

   In Photographs:  Burdock, Janet Malcolm transmuted the banality of a hardy weed into the stuff of aesthetic exaltation.  The recent IRIS prints, all untitled, continued a series introduced in 2008.  After gathering burdock leaves from ditches and abandoned properties in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the artist spirited them to her studio and photographed them head-on, Richard Avedon-style, before an implacable white background.

    In a few of the compositions, she captured the plants in their verdant, chlorophyllous prime but more often showed them ravaged by blight and time.  Within their homogenous, frontally iconic presentation, the weeds exhibited sculptural qualities that suggested individual personalities.  The more youthful specimens, supple-looking and curvaceous, sometimes curled inward like calla lilies.  More weathered examples had rotted or been snacked upon by insects until their edges arched like scythes.

Metaphoric ties between the beleaguered weeds and human life were plentiful and poignant.  Many of the plants had moldered, tattered, and turned tissue-thin, yet, taken as a whole, the body of work came across not so much as a lamentation of autumnal decrepitude as an elegy to the halcyon summer, whose fireflies and cricket songs, picnics and skinnydips could be fondly recalled if not relived.

 Agreeably, the artist’s scrupulous dispassion kept the series from turning hackneyed.  A formidable biographer and journalist long before she essayed the camera, Malcolm, a staff writer at The New Yorker, knows well the value of critical remove.  Her objectivity, however, did not preclude a touch of tenderness from coloring her vegetal subjects.  While she has cited Avedon’s influence over Burdock, Malcolm largely eschewed the late photographer’s ruthless focus, favoring a soft cocoon of light suffusing the leaves.  This luminosity, coupled with the prints’ slightly misty grain, allowed a touch of transcendentalist-style nature worship and romanticism to seep through the formality of Malcolm’s approach.  The works suggested that the components of the natural world, regardless of station, possess a kind of integrity that can survive even the most grotesque corruptions of form.

—Richard Speer