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Exhibition Essay: Christopher Cook

Anthony Lepore
Restoration

October 3, 2008–January 4, 2009

Left: Anthony Lepore, Untitled (Burbank, CA), 2005; archival pigment print, 40 x 50 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Marvelli Gallery, New York

Anthony Lepore’s eclectic aesthetic may classify him as a collector. His diverse and expansive body of photographs reads like an image database or archive, ranging in subject matter from pool parties and chiropractor visits to bird feedings and baboon surgeries, framing his experiences of the world around him. This wide-reaching perspective opens his work to multiple interpretations and reflects the artist’s pronounced fascination with the complex layering and interplay of human relationships.

However broad in scope, Lepore’s photographs are united by their intimacy and their pathos. Unlike some contemporary photography that is shrouded in cynicism and irony, Lepore’s images communicate an emotional sincerity, evoking his genuine desire to understand and relate to his subject. Whether documenting a close relative, a room stuffed with taxidermied animals, or a stunning mountain vista, the fourteen photographs included in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Anthony Lepore: Restoration carefully observe the subtle nuances underlying people’s exchanges. Within these seemingly mundane relationships, Lepore’s sharp, color-saturated photographs illuminate something profound—a desire, a hope, to restore a connection with others and the natural world.

Human relationships at various levels of intimacy dominate as the subject of many of Lepore’s photographs. Over the years, he spent much time documenting friends, relatives, and individuals serendipitously introduced to him. Each of Lepore’s images reveals his genuine curiosity about and fascination with people and their idiosyncratic lifestyles. This intrigue is compounded by his subjects’ willingness to expose their uncensored selves, coaxed by Lepore’s veritable and cunning persuasiveness. Lepore uses a 4-by-5-inch field camera, which delivers a sharp, forensically detailed picture, and infuses his works with an almost palpable intimacy—a closeness that sheds strangeness from strangers.

In Amanda and Rata (2007), Lepore explores the symbiotic bond between mother and child. Centered in the foreground of the image, Amanda sits casually facing the camera as she securely holds her son, Rata, on her lap. Their pose re-creates the ubiquitous, iconic image of mother and child, an elemental sign of affection and affirmation of familial love. The mother’s embrace also embodies the conceptual and ideological understanding of a woman’s ability to conceive, nourish, sustain, and restore human life. The lush foliage in the family’s backyard also suggests the natural, fundamental quality of their close bond and how, with proper nourishment, life of all forms can be restored.

Also posed in the firm, yet tender embrace shared by Amanda and Rata, the couple portrayed in Lepore’s Billy and Cal (2006) express their loving union through a physical gesture. Photographed in a church in Baltimore, Maryland, the subjects nestle together at the end of a pew as natural light cascades upon them from the surrounding stained-glass windows. While the circumstances of their relationship remain unknown to the viewer, their amorous gaze and intimate caress clearly express their adoration and longing for one another. Their honest and effortless display of warmth speaks to an overarching, eternal desire for humans, and perhaps all living creatures, to experience loving, nurturing relationships. The universal and essential nature of forming meaningful, intimate connections with others is persuasively conveyed in Billy and Cal’s embrace—a gesture powerful enough to conquer even the most disenchanted faith in love.

Moreover, Adjustment (2006) focuses on a relatively uncommon yet significant relationship that exposes a different form of restoration, that of one’s own body. Set in the clinical confines of a chiropractor’s office, the patient (the artist’s aunt) lies on her back and faces upward at the doctor as he firmly wraps his arms around her torso. Caught in an uneasy situation, doctor and patient exchange smiles and laughs to subtly defuse their awkward position—a strange marriage of intimacy and violent wrestle-like holds. Lepore’s photograph observes the complexities and ambiguities inherent to this nearness, which for many can be imperative to ensuring a better quality of life, and addresses an underlying tendency to restore something to the state we desire.

Several of Lepore’s photographs evoke a sense of nostalgia as he often returns to people and places that shaped his childhood. Nancy’s Margaritas (2006), for example, portrays the artist’s second cousin presumably in the middle of a pool party. Ready for fun and sun, Nancy wears a blue bathing suit and smiles warmly at the camera as she offers up two margaritas: a welcoming gesture recalling the reenergizing effects of relaxation and leisure time. Her joyous, candid response to the artist’s presence imbues the image with a sense of familiarity and intimacy, as if we were viewing an everyday family snapshot. Like most family photographs, Lepore’s image not only reveals his close relationship with a relative, but it also triggers memories of a past, such as the countless Sunday afternoons he spent as a child around Nancy’s swimming pool. In an effort to portray an individual, Lepore conjures experiences of the past, which in return restore a sense of self in the present.

In addition to the tangled interrelations between people, Lepore’s photographs also examine people’s fascination, attraction, and interactions with animals. Ranging from everyday, domestic pets to wild creatures, each image focuses on the individual’s unique experience with an animal, which at once reveals an almost primal yearning to restore our connections with something alive, free, and natural, and discloses an underlying tension that pervades these relationships.

Lepore’s photograph Untitled (Morro Bay, CA) (2005), for instance, depicts the artist’s grandmother reconnecting with nature firsthand. Based on fond memories of feeding birds with his grandmother, Lepore’s image is set on the seashore of Morro Bay, California—one of her favorite spots to feed birds. Clutching a bag of day-old bread, she stands motionlessly in the foreground of the picture as hungry seagulls swarm her. The fast shutter speed of Lepore’s camera freezes the birds performing aerial acrobatics in their efforts to seize the bread. Engulfed by the birds, Lepore’s grandmother seems caught in a moment of pure exhilaration. Her facial expression exudes joy, fear, and amazement, portraying how direct contact with nature can make us feel revitalized and renewed. In the distant horizon, however, looming smokestacks provide an ominous backdrop to her ecstatic spell, symbolizing our inadvertent negligence of the environment.

In photographs such as Untitled (Brooklyn, NY) (2005) and Wolf Sanctuary (2006), Lepore observes individuals in unusual relationships with animals. The latter image documents a tender moment between the founder of the W.H.A.R. Wolf Rescue and one of the wolves under her care. Surrounded by four wolves, she casually kneels down to kiss one of them. The wolf’s physical proximity and gesture—a quick lick of the snout and relaxed, lounging pose—demonstrate their long-term bond of trust, commitment, and affection. After growing attached to a wounded wolf, the founder moved her family to a remote area outside of Paso Robles, California, to establish a sanctuary for injured wolves and abandoned hybrid wolf-canine breeds. This drastic lifestyle change expresses a deep commitment and passion for restoring the health of these formerly wild animals. However, the elevated highway bisecting the scene, which at night muffles the wolves’ cries, evokes the somber reality of the difficulty of reintroducing these animals into their natural habitat, which is slowly disappearing.

Untitled (Brooklyn, NY) provides an intimate perspective into the unique lifestyle of falconry. Photographed in a small, Brooklyn apartment, the image records a young female falconer feeding her bird of prey on a Sunday morning. The girl is casually dressed in underwear, socks, and a tank top, suggesting the routine and private nature of this activity. Standing slightly crouched, she leans toward the bird as it takes flight from its perch, aiming for her outstretched, gloved hand. Lepore’s photograph captures the instant just before contact is made, infusing the image with a sense of concentration and anticipation. Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (ca. 1511) in the Sistine Chapel, where God’s hand is just inches away from Man’s, the gesture captured in Lepore’s image encapsulates a fateful bond, connoting the collapsing distance between the wild and the domestic.

In photographs such as Post-Op and Coney Island Aquarium (both 2007), Lepore observes situations commonly found in zoos, aquariums, and natural history museums that expose our attempts to restore or re-create natural states. Photographed in the Auckland Zoo in New Zealand, Post-Op documents a sedated baboon undergoing surgery to remove cancerous tumors. While the surgery is an effort to restore the baboon’s health, the animal’s condition is the unfortunate result of being removed from its indigenous environment and being relocated to an unnatural habitat where the ozone layer is depleting.1 While surveying the overall gruesome scene, Lepore’s photograph focuses on the primate’s extended paw, appearing as if it is stretching out to the viewer for help. Its small, tender form, and uncanny resemblance to a human’s foot—individual toes and deep creases in the skin—provoke a sense of familiarity and sympathy, conjuring thoughts about the fragility of nature, and how our actions can significantly impact the health of the natural world.

Similarly, in Coney Island Aquarium, Lepore photographs a professional diorama painter restoring a likeness of a native tidal scene, presumably off the coast of New York. At first glance, the image mirrors the contrived reality of the painted diorama, appearing as if it were shot outdoors on the waterfront. Upon closer inspection, however, the illusion of the diorama slowly vanishes: the water appears unusually still and the horizon line of the painted background of tall grasses and distant wetlands seems unnaturally high. As a result, the photograph addresses how the diorama signifies a presence of absence—it simulates a time or place that is now gone. In this light, the diorama observes our keen fascination with simulacra and our desire for the artificial—its supposed perfection, permanence, and superiority over nature—which rings true to our inability to restore or retain natural states.

Lepore’s photograph View (2007) portrays a terraced hillside plotted with rows of benches in an ordinary public park in Christchurch, New Zealand. Populated by lush, green trees and a variety of plants, the public park, like most green spaces, serves as a tranquil, quiet oasis where people can restore themselves physically and spiritually by taking a quick nap or reconnecting with the environment. However, outside of a few loungers, the majority of the benches remain empty, coloring the overall scene with an elusive curiousness as if it were forsaken for some unknown reason or simply forgotten. While the benches may symbolize our often passive and predetermined experience of nature, their emptiness reflects the reality of our increasing absence from the landscape.

Lepore’s photographs disclose a sweeping desire to restore basic relationships with one another, animals, and the natural world. While eliciting a broad range of emotions—love, hope, joy, amazement—Lepore’s photographs provide commentary on our slow retreat from intimate, lasting relationships with our world. In them, one can sense an underlying urgency, calling to mind the important, fundamental nature of understanding, sympathizing, and connecting with the people and places around us. Today, these relationships may be more important than ever, as the pace of life quickens and new technologies transform our perception of time, place, and interconnectedness.

Christopher Cook

Curator

 1. At the time of photographing Post-Op, Lepore was informed by one of the zookeepers about an increase in skin-cancer–related surgeries on baboons in their care, presumably caused by the Antarctic ozone hole, a depletion of ozone that occurs each springtime over the South Pole. This seasonal phenomenon’s formation, evolution, and effects are analyzed in a conference paper by S. W. Wood and G. E. Bodeker, “Antarctic Ozone Depletion and Its Effect on New Zealand” (Lauder, New Zealand: National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, 2006), also available at www.niwa.co.nz (accessed August 27, 2008).