Fred Scruton at O.K. Harris Gallery

Fred Scruton, Brooklyn, NY (2003), photograph; courtesy the artist

* * *

Listening to Fred Scruton describe his photographs you’d think he was a card-carrying pomo theoretician. Mr. Scruton travels through the United States taking big color photographs of street murals, hand-painted signs, graffiti and robots on the front lawn. We’re told that these “artifacts adrift in cultural time” prompt “era-specific understandings,” revealing “new messages” that “comment reflexively on our shifting perceptions.”

Mr. Scruton places scare quotes around the words “straight,” “good” and “real” when referring to photography. He’s coy as to whether he uses digital technology to manipulate the images. (I’m still not sure if he does.) The upshot to all of this? “The viewers [ sic ] understanding of photographic representation is metaphorically linked to the ‘work-in-progress’ nature of their cultural interpretations.”

What to make of the obfuscating verbiage? Not much. But I’m being unfair: An artist should be judged on the art, not the words the art is packaged with, and Mr. Scruton’s pictures are terrific. Neither innovative (celebrations of oddball Americana have a long tradition) nor political (though Mr. Scruton is drawn to locales marked by poverty), nor even transgressive (no ersatz porn here), the photos are visually stunning, thematically coherent and nurtured by a profound reserve of feeling. He should junk the jargon; his art doesn’t need it.

Mr. Scruton’s appreciation for the crude handiwork of untutored craftsmen is blessedly free of condescension. He has a talent for underscoring the extraordinary in the everyday. In his photographs, La-Z-Boy loungers ascend to the heavens, an angel blesses the cinderblocks of an abandoned building and, in one heartbreaking picture, a homemade totem pole covered with fractured metal placards informs us of its maker’s despair, spelling out the phrase “Nobody cares.”

Mr. Scruton has a painter’s eye for texture–peeling paint, cracking plywood and grainy concrete are reproduced with compelling clarity. (How often do we nose up to a photograph, the better to appreciate its surface?) The color sense is unobtrusively rich. Just as important is Mr. Scruton’s self-effacing approach. He doesn’t advertise his sophistication; he places it, quietly, at the service of his vision. By skipping the showy self-involvement of so many contemporary photographers, Mr. Scruton distinguishes himself from the pack–rises above it, in fact. His art is open to experience, encompassing and sure.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 5, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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