Behind Quinn Gorbutt’s Mind-Bending Photographs

“When I was young, I did a lot of skateboarding and graffiti,” explains Quinn Gorbutt. “That’s when I learned to use the camera as a tool, but at the time, I never really thought about it in terms of art.” Since then, a lot has changed for Gorbutt, who graduated from Yale’s MFA program in Photography last year, counts Abelardo Morell and Gregory Crewdson among his mentors, and just opened his first New York solo show at Chelsea’s Jacob Lewis Gallery

  • Portrait of Quinn Gorbutt. 

    Portrait of Quinn Gorbutt. 

Gorbutt considers himself a photographer first, but, if you were to visit his Harlem studio, it might be easy to confuse his medium of choice. “I work from things that I find in my environment, from the streets, wherever I am,” he says. Indeed, his studio is chock full of sundry objects drawn from the streets and art stores of New York, Virginia (where Gorbutt lived for much of his youth), and New Haven (where he spent the last two years working towards his MFA). “Preparing for this show, I gathered up materials and just started collaging them in space,” Gorbutt explains. Paints, crates, linoleum tiles, and a structure that at times resembles a ramshackle sculpture are scattered throughout the room. There’s a large, unwieldy view camera, too—the kind you see in period films, propped up on a tripod and draped with a cloth.

“A lot of people, when they come to my studio, wonder why I don’t show the things I’m building—why I photograph them instead,” muses Gorbutt. “Part of it is that most of my education has been in photography and that feels most natural to me. But more than that, the camera, for me, has such a specific point of view. The constructions I’m building aren’t super solid but, from the camera’s perspective, it looks that way—it solidifies things.”

The black-and-white photographs on view at Jacob Lewis look solid, almost sculptural; full of layers, but also flat—a duality Gorbutt revels in. “I want to emphasize the optical effect. Your brain is telling you that it’s flat, but your eyes also can perceive that it’s deep.” In Exhaust, Down Down Down Down, Up Up Up Up (2015), for instance, Snickers bars and paint drips sit on top of marbled tiles which, in turn, cover a wooden palette. But, confoundingly, it’s difficult to tell which bit is closest to the eye, or, for that matter, how Gorbutt pieces these elements together.

He does so—spoiler alert—by taking many photos of the same physical construction, each time focusing on different planes, and then scanning that film at high resolution and layering those images. The flat photographs that result are as wondrous, richly textured, and optically mind-boggling as a Rauschenberg collage or an Escher painting. Works like Facing East, Facing West, and In Pieces 4 (all 2015), feel like dreams visualized or enigmas crystallized. And for Gorbutt, the process of rendering his rickety, malleable studio constructions stable through photography resembles the human mind—and way we see the world. “I feel like people do that with their eyes, when they’re looking at the world—tend see everything as ‘making sense,’” he says. “Really things are just thrown together. They’re not very solid, but sometimes we imagine them as being solid.”

It is an apt metaphor for “The Time is Going to Pass Anyway,” a show filled with images that seem to manifest that liminal space between representation and abstraction, photography and sculpture, reality and fantasy.  


—Alexxa Gotthardt


The Time is Going to Pass Anyway” is on view at Jacob Lewis Gallery, New York, Jan. 15–Feb. 20, 2016.


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