Kathy Ryan
, the award-winning New York Times picture editor, has curated an exhibition of ten artists called Chisel for the New York Photo Festival, bringing together artists whose work evokes the painterly or the sculptural. The idea evolved from thinking about Roger Ballen’s ‘psychologically provocative’ latest studio-based work.

© Roger Ballen
Roger Ballen – Effigy 2007

“Ballen was the catalyst for this exhibition. I find his childlike markings, his animal parts, his smudges on the wall, carry such an emotional undercurrent that his work becomes Picasso-esque. He uses everything in his work, from drawings to mark-making, to create his assemblages, and then uses the photograph as the final piece. If you think about it like that, his work’s not so far from that of Julian Faulhaber, in that it’s polished and refined. Everyone involved in the exhibition is either a ‘refiner’ or a ‘framer’,” says Ryan. “I wanted to show ten artists whose work might not ever be seen together in order to provoke a different understanding. I’d say the artists share not so much a sensibility, but rather a pursuit in common.”

Indeed the juxtaposition of Stephen Gill’s Anonymous Origami, made from tiny pieces of toilet paper found in hotel rooms, and Simon Norfolk’s new work on rocket launches Full Spectrum Dominance, to choose but two, might seem surprising. And this would be exactly Ryan’s intention. The wonderful thing about curating a show like this, says Ryan, it’s about what happens as you walk around the exhibition, making links between work.

© Steven Gill
Steven Gill – Goldrush / Anonymous Origami / Reel Charmer

“It’s a celebration of photography. The most important thing about the New York Photo Festival is that it fosters a dialogue with the viewer. It’s absolutely non-commercial and therefore it’s about intellectual rigour and having fun! It’s a chance to be playful, putting together work that isn’t obviously connected. When I look at Simon Norfolk’s rocket launches, I get a pure spiritual stirring, and I see it as part of a brotherhood of images that includes Katherine Wolkoff.”

Wolkoff is exhibiting her series Deerbeds which although incredibly beautiful, wasn’t immediately speaking to me of the painterly or the sculptural (except perhaps in a Rachel Whiteread ‘negative space’ way –  the space the deer no longer inhabit). Ryan explained what she sees – with the advantage of having seen the images ‘in the flesh’ as opposed to via a computer screen.

“Of course her work can be seen in several ways, maybe as a thousand blades of grass. I saw the way she absolutely filled the frame as a Jackson Pollock all-over gesture. Of course, there’s a primary draw towards abstraction, yet she is pulling something out of the world. Her caption tells us what they are: beds in the grass for a living breathing deer. What’s really interesting is that her photography is rooted in reality and that she is using the world as her medium. Those bent grasses – they are her medium – yet it’s speaking to us like an abstract painting. It makes me tingly like when I look at a Rothko.”

© Katherine Wolkoff
Katherine Wolkoff – Deer Bed

Ryan chose Chisel for the title of her exhibition out of a sense of so many artists heading out into the world and chiselling something out of it – be it old chairs in Mexico or a pile of tyres from across the States – that marks a return to what the most exciting Modernist artists made much of, but that the photographers of the same epoch ignored: using found objects. “Photographers are absolutely doing now what Duchamp pioneered – and it’s making photography much more exciting.”

So if much of the work on show is ‘of this world’ (or in Norfolk’s case, at least half way out of this world), are we looking at documentary photography, or do we have to call it art, as it graces the walls of the Brooklyn exhibition halls? And do these distinctions matter anyway?

“On the one hand – no. They don’t matter at all. As a picture editor, my job is to keep finding new ways to tell the same stories, always keeping it fresh. So I cross-pollinate all the time. I’ll use a documentary photographer for a fashion shoot and sparks will fly. But on the other hand: people are who they are. True documentarians are that for a reason. It’s a different pursuit to that of the artist, who is likely to be a little more interior. But then there is work that looks like documentary but is comfortable on a museum wall – like Taryn Simon. I think what it comes down to – and I haven’t really articulated this before – is that art has a requirement of originality; that has to be its aim. The best documentary work in the world can’t be ‘original’ because we all know the stories – of war, disaster and so on. Gilles Peress and his use of framing was a turning point, but it still isn’t ‘art’. The idea alone is what can be called ‘art’.”

Kathy Ryan was talking to Max Houghton