The Painterly Photographs of Jan Groover
Contributed by Patrick Neal, October 8, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about the work of photographer Jan Groover. This started a few months ago when the artist and critic David Ambrose mentioned her, and I learned she had been a long-term faculty member at SUNY Purchase and teacher of the wildly popular photographer Gregory Crewdson. Scanning the landscape of current exhibitions around New York City, I discovered Groover’s work was on view in a group show at Janet Borden, Inc. gallery in DUMBO, and while there I was able to see many examples of her output, including chromogenic, platinum-palladium, and color instant prints. Perhaps the most exciting recent events involving Groover’s oeuvre occurred in 2017 when her husband, the painter and critic Bruce Boice, donated the archive of her work to Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, a museum devoted entirely to photography, which mounted a major retrospective of Groover 2019.
Groover, who died prematurely in 2012 at age 68, started out as a painter and took up photography with a carefree abandon, producing her first mature works in the 1970s. By not taking herself too seriously, she took the pressure off and freed herself to learn and try new things with this different medium. By her own admission she wasn’t a tech geek, knowing enough about a camera’s mechanisms and processes to get the job done, while not being overly scientific. Groover produced several different bodies of work during her career, working in landscape, still life, and portraiture genres, and was as curious with her subjects as she was with her mediums, working with 35mm, view, and Polaroid cameras. Her still lifes, created between the late 70s and early 90s, are particularly sumptuous, and tend to fall into three categories: sharp and reflective colorful close-ups of her kitchen, including the sink and various utensils; studio tabletops meticulously constructed and populated with props; and larger assemblages done outdoors on her lawn in Montpon, France. Although each body of work has defining characteristics, Groover moved back and forth between color and monochromatic, sharp and atmospheric, minimal and complex.
In her still life props and arrangements, Groover eschewed any narrative, meaning, or symbolic import, concentrating solely on visual and physical characteristics. In a series of early diptychs and triptychs picturing traffic and suburban houses, she used conceptual approaches of obfuscation and serialization to shift the emphasis from subject matter to gestalt and abstraction. By the time she arrived at her still lifes, these multi-panel meditations had been folded into single images and executed on the basis of her belief that “formalism is everything.” This famous quip of Groover’s underscores the visual-plastic elements as a force sufficient to drive an artwork, and has the same ring as the familiar dictum that any subject is really just “an excuse to make a painting.” It’s easy to relate the transporting abstract qualities of a Morandi or Cezanne still life to the construction Groover applied to her own tableaux and photo compositions.
Groover’s Tabletop Still Lifes,often realized as soft, velvety, platinum-palladium or gelatin-silver prints, were followed by the Colored Still Lifes, executed as chromogenic prints, sometimes with lurid lighting. She would work out her compositions with preliminary drawings and took Polaroids in between shots as a gauge or barometer for what might transpire in the darkroom. These works comprised bottles, statues, knickknacks, fruits, knives, shells, bones, boards, paper, columns and pedestals, stacked and arranged in strange, shallow spaces with grounding floor planes and perpendicular wall planes, the camera often hovering slightly overhead. The painterliness of Groover’s approach is apparent from start to finish, from how she erected her stage-like settings to the visceral and tactile prints that emerged on the other end. She spray-painted still life objects and included the residual mists, stencilings and after-images in the compositions, allowing for confusion between background and foreground amplified by carefully orchestrated colored lighting and shadows. Despite the figurative associations attached to a pear, putto, knife, etc., it’s the shape, edge, color, placement, and relationships between these objects that are heightened and enhanced, reimagining how truly alien, grand, and unfamiliar these things can become when disconnected from literal readings. The calibrations, adjustments, and flexibility with which Groover established and revised a still life configuration was carried through to the focus and mechanisms of the camera and the chemistry of the final print. Seen in person, her photos have rich, sensual surfaces much like a tonal drawing or painting.
In the short film Jan Groover: Tilting at Space, one gets a sense of Groover’s working method, her tools, routine and logic. In her studio you can see shelves stacked with small vases and vessels and rows of spray paint cans, and there is a work in progress; a still life resting on top of a board that overhangs a table, which is in turn balanced on top of a box. This tableau climbs up a nearby wall plane by way of a miniature ladder, and additional boards flank and crisscross the scene. It has the fractured, mismatched planes of a Cezanne still life or a Cubist painting. Hot amber lighting, dramatic shadows, and scorched mists of paint add ambiance and atmosphere to a collection of surreal props, the palette reined in and keyed to a few burnt hues with flickers of fiery red. While she works out the composition through the camera’s lens, Groover walks back and forth, adding or adjusting a prop, spraying things here and there to change a value or contrast. In Groover’s finished pieces, one admires her sense of design and placement, the mileage she gets with a few select colors, what she chooses to cluster or precariously balance on edge, how she fuzzes, blurs, or focuses the lens to create areas that are dreamlike or crisp.
Discussions of Groover as a postmodernist speak to a time when artists sought to revive former masters and techniques within a landscape glutted with images, situated amid a healthy distrust of narrative. Within this framework, Groover comes off as a formalist rather than a conceptualist, more interested in exploring and pushing aesthetic possibilities than investigating the documentarian or appropriative aspects of photography. Her intellectual curiosity spanned various cameras and technologies while creating single or multiple images, sometimes in book format. In the latter part of her career, she tried digital and inkjet printing. Additionally, her work referenced and revealed a depth and breadth of knowledge of past photography greats. Excising content to concentrate solely on form in order to generate a picture is a worthwhile aesthetic pursuit, but it never erased all traces of Groover herself. Her touch, sensibility, and peculiar intellect are all over the work. Ultimately, what’s so awe-inspiring about her photos is how evocative they are of so many things.