RongRong & inri, Untitled, 2008. Gelatin silver print.

RongRong&inri at the Modern

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RongRong&inri, Liulitun, Beijing 2002 No. 13, 2002 Gelatin silver print Sheet: 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm)

Before the artistic duo RongRong&inri met, both RongRong and inri had their own artistic practices, RongRong as a self-taught photographer who maintained rigorously traditional photographic and development methods, inri as a photo journalist, utilizing photography artistically, but also as a more immediate method of communication.

But for the last 15 years, the two artists, who are partners in life as well as in work, have been creating work solely together, as RongRong&inri.

Andrea Karnes, the Modern Museum of Fort Worth’s Curator, fell in love with the work of the duo at a 2013 exhibition in Tokyo entitled “All You Need is Love.” It was a group show but the self-portraits RongRong&inri were displaying, which chronicled their changing family, were striking.

The Modern’s FOCUS series presented Karnes with the perfect opportunity to bring the two artists, who have had little, to no exposure in North America, to Fort Worth, where museum-goers can see the work of RongRong&inri in an intimate show through April 4.

Once you’ve seen it, the work ofRongRong&inri is instantly recognizable. The duo use very traditional, old-fashioned processes in the taking and development of their photographs and each of the black and white images is hand-tinted by inri (RongRong is color-blind).

But the simplicity of the technique belies the enigmatic nature of their work. RongRong&inri utilize an explicitly well-defined artistic vision to not only document their lives, but to explore the nature of human life and relationships, examining their subject, without really questioning it, instead prompting the viewer to grapple with his own definitions of the ideal, or the archetype, the artist’s work illustrates.

RongRong&inri, Tsumari Story No. 11-4, 2014 Gelatin silver print Sheet: 50 x 64 15/16 in. (127 x 165 cm)

RongRong&inri, Tsumari Story No. 11-4, 2014 Gelatin silver print Sheet: 50 x 64 15/16 in. (127 x 165 cm)

Conceptually, the work references the pictures of Bernd and Hilla Becher in its seriality and superficial emphasis on documentation. But RongRong&inri’s work is different.

Where the Becher’s work is stark and complex, RongRong&inri’s is straightforwardly beautiful, delicately massaging the line between complexity and simplicity. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be struck by how nuanced the pictures subjects become in the artist’s masterful hands, whether you’re looking at a self-portrait, or an image that tends more towards the abstract.

Karnes agrees, “I’m usually drawn to the dark and complex,” as she puts it. But there is something about the seeming simplicity of RongRong&inri’s work that is mesmerizing, completely belying the artist’s rather forthright presentation of their subjects.

At the Modern, viewers can see an assortment of images from various series the couple have realized. There are photographs of their family, self-portraits of the two of them, and more landscape driven images, which invoke the ongoing struggle man has in defining his relationship with his environment and the land.

While all the work is personal on some level, whether overtly, or more abstractly, all of the work on view at the Modern can be read metaphorically with RongRong, inri and family standing in for the archetypal, man, woman, couple or family, making the work profoundly affecting, no matter how you approach it.

And that’s really where the power of photography lies isn’t it? In its unique ability, when done well, to somehow display its subject, at the same time as it wraps it in mystery.