Jorge Ribalta: Portraits (Elegy to August Sander)
From June 6 through July 22, 2005, Zabriskie Gallery exhibits a series of portraits by Spanish photographer Jorge Ribalta. The artist uses the idiom of the traditional celebrity portrait, but subverts that idiom by using dolls and collectible figurines as his models, rather than human celebrities. Taking inspiration from the early-20th century German photographer August Sander, Ribalta explores the social implications of portraiture. Unlike Sander, Ribalta juxtaposes the celebrity status of the subjects with the mass-produced, base qualities of the figurines he photographs. He also explores the essence of the celebrity image, toying with the familiarity of famous personalities by presenting their costumes while allowing their faces to remain mysterious. Manipulating the photographic qualities to obscure and reveal the images of these recognizable people, Ribalta produces eerily life-like photographs that find a comfortable, if ironic home in the tradition of portraiture.
Ribalta uses the simplicity of these portraits to blur the lines between glamour photography and journalism, theater and reality, and between individuality and the generic. Ribalta has written, “I understand documentary as a historical genre for the representation of the other, the poor, the exotic, the unrepresented in celebrity portraits.” These images are portraits, in the romantic tradition of kings and movie stars—but with the subjects that are antithetical to that glamour. The celebrities in Ribalta’s work achieve their status through occupying an office or a costume—Allan Iverson is no one without inhabiting the basketball uniform, Boris Karloff and Paul Stanley are unrecognizable without their makeup and John Paul II is only the pope by mandate of the College of Cardinals. George W. Bush, May 1, 2003 features the double-costume of a celebrity in an office within a costume. The would-be glamour is destroyed by Ribalta’s depiction of these costumed personalities via their 6-inch effigies. Not only are the personalities reduced to diminutive, pose-able objects, these objects are mass-produced and consumer-ready, dissolving the singularity of the personalities.
The Portrait series brings these two extremes together without alleviating the tension between them—there is still an irresistible urge to deny that these are portraits rather than still-lifes. Once the viewer realizes that these are portraits of dolls, it’s almost a disappointment that Ribalta didn’t capture the image of the “real” Paul Stanley. Ribalta’s work capitalizes upon such expectations to heighten this tension between documentary and portrait.
Jorge Ribalta was born in 1963 in Barcelona, Spain, where he continues to live and work. His photographs are represented in major collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Maison Europeene de Photographie in Paris. This is his fourth one-person show at Zabriskie Gallery.