Persistence or Renewal? On Gregory Halpern’s “19 Winters / 7 Springs”

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

January 11, 2023

Over the past decade, Gregory Halpern has become an influential figure in American art photography, principally through the release of several wildly successful photobooks. Virtually all that work has centered on the postindustrial Midwest, so that it seems especially apt that the Transformer Station, in Ohio City, Cleveland should host his first major US solo exhibition.

“19 Winters / 7 Springs” comprises forty-one photographs and three floor-standing sculptures, all made in or depicting Halpern’s hometown of Buffalo, NY. In a faint echo of the geography of the region, in which Buffalo and Cleveland share a shoreline with the vast Lake Erie, this former substation has been refashioned into two reading rooms and twin gallery spaces linked by a single corridor. Upon entry, one finds at right a gallery framed by a large, Edenic portrait of a young white man perched on crutches beneath an immense tree, the bushes behind him a buoyancy of yellow flame (Untitled, 2004–2022). At left, in the Crane Gallery, Halpern shows a diminutive portrait of a muddy young African American student listing faintly after football practice, the looming gray trashcan beside him seemingly ready to swallow his weary frame whole (Untitled, 2004–2022). The two portraits map opposing poles on a racial spectrum, and figure the cyclical rhythm of the seasons, describing a world in which beauty and innocence are not merely indivisible from injury and labor, but differently lived.

While portraits constitute the smaller half of the show, accounting for seventeen of the forty-four works, they are consistently its largest objects, its primary numbers, whether rearing up from the rafters, floating in soft pools of open white space, or apportioning themselves to the large scale of staircases and entire walls. It is the delicate specificity of personhood—preponderantly that of the young and the male—that lends structure not merely to the exhibition, but to its episodic exploration of place and time.

There are subtle and queer scenes of languorous ease and restful contemplation, of tender affection and seemingly deep need, of reverie and joyous exultation at the freshness of driven snow, just as there are scenes of desiccation and disarray. The tragic aspect of shrunken dejection in a pigeon stooped against a wall is heightened by the vibrant pink petals strafed around his bony feet (Untitled, 2004–2022)—his slate gray form echoing in the windswept gray cloths that faintly shield an open fire in an encampment for the unhoused, situated nearby. Halpern’s watery portrait of a young black-haired woman (Untitled, 2004–2022) so resembles Henri Matisse’s iconic The Italian Woman (1916) that resonances of religious imagery become palpable throughout the show. There are balaclava-wearing wraiths, impish sprites, and green-haired angels on the walls, and in various prints there’s a halation of light whose radiance seems celestial, even as spaces of abandonment and subsistence are rendered with fleshly density and dimension.

In a modestly scaled and irregular grid, Halpern pictures the ludic sphere of a dirtbike cage at a circus (Untitled, 2004–2022), which faintly resembles Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, while nearby a young man shadowboxes in a flash-lit mirror whose streaked surface echoes the limpid blue sunbursts funneling through cracks into a container twinned at his side (Untitled, 2004–2022). At their feet, the vast black iron doors to Transformer Station’s basement echo an emptiness to the touch of heavy feet that whispers back into the gallery space, pointing up the three-sided husks of Halpern’s sculpted houses perched atop their long wooden stilts.

It is a sense of that vacancy (and perhaps faint expectancy) that runs through the show’s syncopated and fugal flow. “19 Winters / 7 Springs” figures a city of splendid but total isolation, a place whose volatile climactic extremes are of a piece with the epic stakes for economies of subsistence in a culture of obsolescence for many, and plenty for few. This spectrum of extremity is intimated in the sculptures themselves—their sheer stentorian frontality is offset by floorless inner walls that weave a tapestry of blue skies, flowers, and the vestiges of a solar eclipse. Halpern’s sculptures describe something weightless, beautiful, and cataclysmic on the inside of these snow-covered homes. Indeed, the only bounty of which the exhibition seems certain is that of natural cycles of renewal and decay, which is to say that the works prize history as our shared genesis, and that they reckon candidly with death. I am reminded of the interrogative yellow preposition “UNTIL” splashed midway up dark black steps in an image in the show—reminded that the conditional tense of the word offers no promises of after, gives no assurances of another side to the Sisyphean hill. At Transformer Station, Halpern offers us a twenty-year-old image of a city for whom the present is the only article of faith that one can trust.

Gregory Halpern’s “19 Winters / 7 Springs” is on view at Transformer Station, Cleveland, through February 5.

Urbanism, Photography, Contemporary Art
Socially Engaged Art

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a British-Ugandan photographer, writer, editor, and associate professor of photography.

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January 11, 2023

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