Bing Wright at Paula Cooper

It seems only fitting that photographer Bing Wright, who hails from Seattle, should work so well with gray light and moisture-laden atmospheres. In the late '80s and early '90s, his subject matter consisted of water running down glass, portentous skies and rain-dappled windows. These are melancholic images, with a tendency toward adolescent melodrama. But where any stray pitch might have rung false, Wright's images felt perfectly calibrated, each successfully capturing the mingled pleasure and pain of subjectivity, time and mortality.

In this exhibition, Wright turned his attention indoors, to the studio, in homage to Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France 1914, Steichen's well-known image of stacked flowers in the process of wilting. Wright shows us strewn rose petals, empty vases and piles of dark blooms, all writ monumentally large at 53 by 43 inches. One of the two standouts here (both 1996-2006) was Rose (Upside-down), which depicts a bloom seemingly fallen on its face against a seamless, light gray background; the other was Rose (Dead Fly), in which the camera focuses on a minuscule, glistening fly at the bottom center of the image, with the ostensible subject, the flowers, off to the left, a soft white blur of an afterthought. Both pictures, with their deadpan humor, remind me of Wright's 1997 series "Fly Disasters," in which the artist shot dead fly parts scattered across a featureless surface. Rose (Dead Fly) is just as witty as the earlier work, but with an added twist: is the artist going to fail with the new subject because he keeps getting distracted by the old one? The work seems as much a comment on the problems of making art as on the question of what is an appropriate subject for high art.

Notwithstanding these two images, however, the show couldn't completely shed the burdens of the flower's associations (Penn, Sudek, Izu) or its cliches. Loose petals and haphazardly tossed roses fail to hold much visual interest, likewise the vase Wright chose, which looks like the kind commonly found in 99-cent stores. Perhaps the quotidian was the point, but there wasn't enough surprise elsewhere in the pictures, or in Wright's approach, to cast any new light on the iconic, oft-photographed subject. If Wright's aim was to prove that no subject matter, no matter how hackneyed and familiar, need be limited by its history, this time he just didn't pull it off.

Art in America, February 2009