Artweek February, 2008 Barbara Morris
Richard Nagler at George Krevsky Gallery
Numerous artists have pursued careers founded on an obsession with words. Robert Indiana’s oeuvre is practically synonymous with the word “LOVE,” and Ed Ruscha has carried on his semantic love affair for more than thirty years. Mining a similar territory, in some respects, we may find Bay Area photographer Richard Nagler, who has spent thirty years investigating the photographic relationship between word and subject - - - specifically one “found” word, and a human subject observed randomly interacting with it. Compared with the shrill confrontation of a single painted word (Ruscha), Nagler gives us emotionally generous, conceptual, complex, highly charged and sometimes searing images. His less cooperative subject --- the real world and its people --- yields works that are variously elegant, clumsy, awkward and inconsistently successful. They may make us feel embarrassed, astonished, sad, curious, depressed, voyeuristic, disappointed or elated --- most likely, some bittersweet mixture. These works are similar in tone to the candid, intense and varied photographic portraits of street life documented by late New York photographer Garry Winogrand.
Nagler’s most recent exhibition, Unspoken Word, emphasized that nothing in these works has been contrived; each photograph documents as image he came across and was lucky, and patient, enough to photograph. He frequently finds the location and the word, with which he hopes to work, and then waits until an appropriate person comes along. He has minimal interaction with his subjects, preferring to remain anonymous and ideally having the person unaware that they are being photographed.
TIME, Oakland began Nagler’s concept of “one word, one person”: an ageless African-American woman in a window above the evocative word “time,” the faded geometry of the building and its rusting fire escape a foil for the intimacy of her interior space. At the other end of the spectrum, a vibrant NOW, Miami portrays an energetic young African-American girl wearing a frilly white dress, her hair in pigtails, against a backdrop of street art --- a large wall painted pale, sea-foam green, stained and peeling, meeting gray, ochre and black shapes. What at first glance appears to be her shadow, quicklyand unnervingly reveals itself to be a painted silhouette. Oddly, this child could be the twenty-first-century twin of the model for Norman Rockwell’s famous painting about school desegregation, The Problem We All Live With.
The subject’s awareness of Nagler’s presence varies from work to work. In INFINITY, Tel Aviv a bathing-suited girl walks in front of a row of cars. She seems irritated, her eyes flash. The young African-American woman in TRASH, Oakland turns towards the viewer, an expression of wariness on her face. Dusty yellow and blue-violet hues give this edgy image a desperate, twilight feel.
In contrast with the gritty scenes of city life are several interspersed images of more upscale society. GRAVITY, New York City shows an elegant room with marble columns; an elegant young blonde woman rests on a bench. The word “GRAVITY” appears in glowing, light blue letters on the wall, as though illuminated from behind.
In addition to Oakland Rhapsody, which includes text by Ishmael Reed, Nagler has also produced a book profiling the elderly Jewish community of South Miami Beach, My Love Affair with Miami Beach. This affectionate portrayal of a vibrant community includes interviews and essays by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Unspoken Word project also included a book in collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, but was derailed by the poet’s untimely death in 1997.