Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Photography's Back to the Future"

Garie Waltzer, Tokyo: Hanayaski Amusement Park, 2008.
Printed with 
archival pigmented carbon inks on Hanemuhle photo rag paper.
Catherine Evans, the William and Sara Soter Curator of Photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, has curated a breathtaking show for the Ohio Arts Council at their Riffe Gallery in Columbus. Photography's Back to the Future presents bodies of work by ten exceptional artists who use their cameras to transport us past documentation of reality. In the images these ten bring us, microcosms and galaxies hitherto beyond our focus or dreams lie before us. It's a show that made me catch my breath over and over in surprise and wonder as I reacted to the beauty, mystery, and acuity of ten distinguished visions.

Every photographer in the show dazzles with striking image, unusual  technique, or stunning point of view, so let me name them all: Amanda Hope Cook and Dennison W. Griffith, both of Columbus; Lori Kella of Cleveland; Tracy Longley-Cook, Francis Schanberger, Janelle Young, and Christine Zuercher of Dayton; Rachel Girard Reisert and Jordan Tate of Cincinnati; and Garie Waltzer of Cleveland Heights.

Garie Waltzer, Eiffel Tower Plaza, 2005. Printed with archival
pigmented carbon inks on Hanemuhle photo rag paper
Four of my favorites demonstrate that however I wish that I understood the many different technical forms of photography, I am at least not blind to the beauties of the work that results from them. As in print-making and multi-media art, my experience would probably be enhanced by understanding each artist's techniques and innovations. Yet these ultimately matter to the extent that they serve the ends of the work and its essential communication about the human issues—which bring me to art in the first place.

I led this review with one of Garie Waltzer's entirely absorbing, deeply layered images from her Living Cities series. In each of the huge, black and white, perfectly-focused photographs, taken in cities around the world, Waltzer shoots from a position so neutral and narrative—all-seeing and inescapable—that we feel the satisfaction we find in a nineteenth-century novel. The camera is situated at a spot of high, distant authority that permits us to roam with freedom through the  minutely documented world. Seeing the world through her image is unquestionably better than being part of it, where we would be reduced to insignificant participation with an insignificant consciousness.
Garie Waltzer, Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha, 2010. Printed with archival pigmented carbon inks on Hanemuhle photo rag paper.

Waltzer captures the essence of the city's interlocking series of macro- and microcosms. Her lens composes and frames a whole world, even though the background mountains, the shadow, or the park fences tell us that it is merely a slice of a city's life. Yet within this microcosm, we see the defining architecture and infrastructure and we can watch the movement and the expressions of the people moving through it. The depth and clarity of focus is uncanny. In Rio, we can see all the way back to the houses against the mountainside; in Tokyo, we admire the planning that fashions from a tiny piece of ground a sufficient "Disneyland" for hundreds of pleasure-seekers. No individual's delight is left ambiguous: All the facts are laid bare in Waltzer's living cities, where all the scenes, so beautifully composed, are just as her camera finds them.

Janelle Young, from Atlas series, 2012. Silver gelatin print.
Janelle Young documents in her 2012 Atlas series living worlds as ambiguous as Waltzer's are defined. Her camera may be focused on views of Earth from Mars, or on dew drops through microscopes. The reality content of her work is merely the stage upon which the viewer's dreams emerge and play what roles they will. The allure of her work for me is that I find myself sometimes the principal inhabitant of her odd landscapes and at other times a distant surveyor of far-away, misty and mystical scenes—the sorts of places that suggest the challenges that determine destiny. A remarkable thing about the pictures, then, is that the images are so plastic in terms of interpretation, while being formally so stable.

Janelle Young, from Atlas series, 2012. Silver gelatin print.
In the photograph to the left, one can even compare the camera angle to those Waltzer chooses in her cityscapes. We feel that we are high above a world laid out below us. Is it a city whose airport we approach? Or the the foothills that will lead us from our mountaintop to the moors? Perhaps it is the dream of Death's distant horizon, with its edges curving in to embrace us; or the setting moon that leads us to from this vague life to a glowing final place? 

The image to the right can lead all sorts of sensibilities into meaningful narratives and reflections. Interpret this through, time, space, delight, fear, Nature, spirit, religion, philosophy, the creative urge: The potential narratives are, in Young's suggestive visual definition, as great in number as Waltzer's in their clarity. Yet, like Waltzer, Young's mastery of her medium is at the highest level. In neither of these images is there a moment out of place. Allowing one's eye to shuttle slowly across every area of the surface, we find nothing even close to being "out of focus." Young has carefully chosen the degree of edge for every episode of the print: This is tour de force work.

Lori Kella, Majestic Effort.
Landscape is also the territory of Lori Kella, who handcrafts vistas to photograph. Her constructions are in the vein of traditional museum dioramas, in which scenes are set as background on which model humans or wildlife display their habits or dramas. Her work disconcerts viewers new to it. Its colors are vivid and the effects she creates do not at first glance appear to be modeled by hand: Of course they are photographs of real places and events! It is only after puzzled scrutiny that we discover the artifice. We experience her work in waves, each bringing a new swell of delight and surprise.

What finally clues the viewer in to the artificiality of Kella's work is its literal shallowness. Compared to the vistas we've seen in the literal and metaphorical landscapes of Waltzer and Young, Kella gives us horizons cut off by clouds, creating narrow, cosseted worlds for us to experience and examine. Though she often generates snowy and aerial scenes, even these are warm because the implied grand scale is closed off by cloudy skyline, looming mountains, or by trees. 
Lori Kella, White Paper Mountains, 2011.
In White Paper Mountains, the mountains rise abruptly from an even plain; a few small, cumulus clouds are suspended from a faintly glittering "invisible" wire. The helicopter in Majestic Effort is crudely painted, and its blades are seen individually, not as the blur that would appear if they were rotating.

The notes to Kella's work in the show remind us that her work, though whimsical, is serious, having to do with preservation of landscape, and being artistically related to the work of Ansel Adams and other great American landscape artists. No doubt all of this is true, but it is definitely the whimsical that most affects me in her work, for it removes me to an age when the world could be literally modeled for train sets and doll houses, and when our youthful minds inhabited them fully. As my brothers' O-gauge train chugged down its track between its minor scenery of water tower, general store and a few flaky trees, it shoved every other possible reality from mind. 

Kella's photography proves that the imaginary can be as discernibly real as reality. Photography is traditionally the documentary medium. It witnesses, defines, and proves. In Kella's work, personal worlds, the worlds we dream about—or the secret, fantasy ones in which we in fact mentally operate daily—are validated and proven real by the fact-finding camera.  
Rachel Girard Reisert, Tropism #8, Toned cyanotype prints on Arches Platine paper, 55 3/4” x 21 1/4.”

Rachel Girard Reisert's handsome series, Tropism, is another highlight of this wonderful show. Each triptych features one or more trees in three parts, which the viewer cannot fail to associate. I find them impossible not to understand as gestural, every springing branch (even the severed one in Tropism #8) an invitation to and anticipation of life beyond.

A tropism, for those of us who have forgotten, is an organism's tendency to orient itself by growth on some external stimulus. Phototropism is the apparent tendency of plants to grow toward light (though the light actually damages the side closest to it, allowing the farther side to grow faster, thus bending the plant "toward" the light. Stay tuned.)

Reisert works close-up, giving us studies not only in gesture, but in surface as well. These tree are portraits in the manner of figure studies, such care Reisert takes lovingly to detail the particularity of each. In Tropism #8, I feel myself granted a privileged, intimate view of an ancient elder, whose folded, mottled, and stringy skin is the displayed history of his long life. The point of view, up the trunk, pays homage to the subject, whose complexity is expressed through three views that suggest his roundness of character and vision, on top of his longevity. Is the outward gesture the tropism? Is the gesture promoting or crippling the aging tree?
Rachel Girard Reisert, Tropism #9, Toned cyanotype prints on Arches Platine paper, 55 3/4” x 21 1/4.”
As we look up into the triptych of Tropism #9, we see the branches of the central, dead figure gesture on the right directly into blooming spring branches (perhaps photographed with infrared film? I'm not certain). On the left, an abundant vine graciously entwines with dead twigs. The clean spareness of these images, along with the lilting composition reaffirms the hopeful messages of dignity and renewal that Reisert finds in nature's life cycles and seasonal cycles both. 

Reisert's focus on age in nature is particularly interesting throughout this series of work, as longevity's values of durability, texture, grace, and generosity seem to be in general cultural disfavor at the moment. Reisert's exploration of time through these studies is not only visually beautiful, but excellent for the quiet pace her triptych technique imposes. She invites our not only our inspection, but our reflection as well.

Photography's Back to the Future will be open at the Riffe Center Gallery through July 7. I'm able to cover only a few of the wonders in it. I am embarrassed to use the term "must-see," so I'll just say that I wouldn't want to miss this show and hope my local readers will not.

Photographs courtesy of the Riffe Gallery, Rachel Girard Reisert, and Garie Waltzer. 

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