Higher Pictures is a photography gallery, but it would be difficult to tell from the space’s first show in its new location on the third floor of 980 Madison Avenue, above Gagosian‘s uptown branch. “Photography Is,” curated by owner Kim Bourus, is a collection of images by a group of young artists including Emily Roysdon, Matthew Stone, and John Houck who deconstruct and reassemble the traditional notion of the photograph, modifying the photo’s surface, re-photographing, and playing visual and conceptual tricks with viewers.
Bourus doesn’t play to easy definitions. The sense of unbounded exploration in the exhibition is a direct outgrowth of the owner and director’s own sensibility, which was first honed while working at Magnum photo agency’s cultural department after graduating from Indiana University with a BFA in oil painting. “Even at school, being a painter, photography interested me, but it really started when I worked there,” she explained in a recent conversation at the gallery. The experience developed a wide-ranging taste: “One day I would be talking to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the next day to Martin Parr,” Bourus recalled.
A petite woman given to dressing severely in a white shirt, black jacket, black pants, and black shoes with a pair of thin framed, horn-rimmed glasses, Bourus has a particular intellectual intensity that might be called old school. She was reticent to define just what photography means to her, but noted that she felt it was still a young medium. “It’s embryotic, that’s why it’s exciting,” Bourus said.
“She’s really interested in all the various ways that photographers are by interest or necessity branching out into other media or other kinds of ideas,” Artie Vierkant, an artist who contributed one of his sculptural image-objects to the gallery’s current exhibition, toldARTINFO.
If there’s a theme to the gallery’s programming, which has ranged from group shows of the female members of New York’s mid-century Photo League to solo presentations of emerging artists like photographic abstractionist Jessica Eaton, it’s an attraction to “historical revisionism in a medium,” Bourus said. Higher Pictures was an early supporter of the 2012Whitney Biennial and New Museum triennial star LaToya Ruby Frazier, but has also shown a selection of Wayne F. Miller’s photographs documenting World War II. “Kim really breaks down boundaries,” commented Eaton, who is planning her second solo show at the gallery. “I’m generally a bit apprehensive about medium-specific spaces. Higher Pictures is an amazing exception to that.”
Founded in 2007, the gallery first made its home in a Madison Avenue townhouse with a space a fraction the size of the new, still intimate, location. With such an avant-garde sensibility, why stay uptown? In part, because the neighborhood’s historic vibe was appealing. Bourus remarked on 980 Madison Avenue’s storied past as a New York City art-world keystone with a smile. Designed by architects A. Stewart Walker and Alfred Easton Poor in the 1950s, it served as the “Grand Central Terminal of the art world,” home to the eponymous auction house and a clutch of galleries. The building is undergoing a revival; alongside Higher Pictures, the third floor will soon host new spaces from Yoshii gallery and collector Adam Lindemann.
Higher Picture’s segmented new space is small by Chelsea (or even Lower East Side) standards, but the rigorous attention to detail brought to the renovation gives the gallery a spacious, airy atmosphere and reinforces the careful eclecticism of Bourus’s curation. With “Photography Is” the space has a split personality. It’s a downtown aesthetic enclosed in an uptown jewel box, a context that enhances both the critical gravity and the visual charm of the work on view.
Of course, there are other reasons that an amibitious dealer might like to remain uptown. Emphasizing unorthodox work is important to Bourus, but so is finding a way to help her artists, and herself, grow: “Upward mobility is the name of the game,” she wrote in an email, “and the Upper East Side is where the big deals are done.”