Nick Hackworth

Settings and Players, White Cube2

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Rent-boys, copulating couples and porn stars. Given that these are among the subjects depicted in this exhibition of American photography, staff at White Cube2 may well be reinforcing its doors and preparing to fend off an assault from Scotland Yard’s obscene publications unit. If the unit, which last week “raided” the Saatchi Gallery on the basis that some of the works in its I Am a Camera exhibition might constitute child pornography, did call they would be disappointed. They would find these fleshy scenes nestling inconspicuously among other hum-drum American suburban tableaux — an old man practising his golf swing indoors, a Sunday barbecue gone wrong, an elderly couple posing awkwardly for a portrait — all scenes in which normality is a paper-thin veneer.

The exhibition, subtitled Theatrical Ambiguity in American Photography, features 16 photographers, spanning three generations. The “old guard” of Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and Robert Adams, all born in the Twenties and Thirties, were part of a generation of photographers who sidestepped the photojournalistic need to capture the “decisive moment” and instead were drawn to the strangeness and beauty of the everyday. According to the art-historical argument presented by the curators, a subsequent generation, rep- resented here, by, among others, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson built more self-consciously upon this dramatisation of the quotidian by using varying degrees of theatrical invention. This tendency, according to the argument, is intensified by the generation of “emerging talents”, including Justine Kurland and Anna Gaskell, who “move into territories of even more overt contrivance”.

In truth the exhibition’s narrative displays a good deal of artifice itself. While Crewdson, who stages and then records typical American small-town scenes, clearly fits the curators’ bill, Nan Goldin does not, falling more into a documentary style of work. Nor does Tim Davis, one of the younger photographers in the show, who produces sumptuously coloured shots of phone booths and the like. Contrivance aside, much of this work is simultaneously intelligent and beautiful — Eggleston’s perfectly composed image of a hip girl from the Seventies, Jeff Wall’s discovery of beauty in a paint-stained sink and Robert Adam’s cool, austere, black and white dissections of isolation in Identikit American homes.

Until 14 April. White Cube2, 48 Hoxton Square, N1. Box office: 020 7930 5373