About a year ago, I reviewed the William Mortensen photography that Stephen Romano had displayed for the MetroShow. The images were haunting and beautiful, carefully but not predictably staged. Romano’s current show, American Grotesque, which has been widely reviewed, demonstrates that Mortensen has been at the periphery of photographic history for too long.
Occupying a space somewhere between novelty and forgotten talent, his work lingered in the attics and online auctions of people who probably realized they had something interesting in their possession, but no real idea what. The work is more than interesting, though. It’s visionary. Romano’s exhibit demonstrates that Mortensen was a perfectionist—Mr. Romano describes how Mortensen kept razors in his darkroom so that he could immediately destroy any image he didn’t like—and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of photographic process will see Mortensen’s remarkable ability to blend process and subject matter, to wed printing with narrative. I think here of a self-portrait that hangs in the center of one of the exhibit’s walls. It is ghostly, bizarre, and haunting. Its white space highlights an ephemeral Mortensen, one who offers us only a glimpse of his piercing gaze and fading body.
Mr. Romano himself has a keen ability to stage a show, and this one is no different. Adjoining the Mortensen space is an exhibit by Rik Garrett. Earth Magic is a collection of imagery that, like Mortensen’s, explores the occult, and the pairing could not be more compelling. While I found myself more interested in images like Figure 1 (Untitled), which seduces with a haunting invitation and forgoes the almost predictable crawling and writhing of witch figures in images like Figure 2, Earth Magic alone would be worth a visit to the gallery.
When you add that Romano is also showing All the Lost Souls by Lu Zhang and has on view a collection of spectacular visionary and occult work—one that was described as a top ten thing to see in the city for Halloween—I can’t help but wish that he’d leave the show up beyond November. I want to see it again, and if I sound as though I am a gushing sycophant, I challenge you to visit the gallery and see if you don’t emerge if not a sycophant, an awestruck admirer of Mortensen, Garrett, and the man who has brought them into view. I have a hard time imagining how Mr. Romano could have made a better show. Judging by the traffic I witnessed through the space in my short time there, I suspect others feel the same way.
American Grotesque, Earth Magic, and All the Lost Souls, are on view at Stephen Romano Gallery in Brooklyn, New York through November 30.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor of Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.