Friday, February 9, 2007

Photography/Civilian G Fine Art by Timothy Campbell

Allusions to painting abound in G’s current show of contemporary photography. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer encounters a handsome C-print by Tim Hyde entitled “Los Angeles.” A steady lens captures an abandoned highway ramp in LA that is described in dusty, dry atmosphere. The mechanical curves and ellipses of heavy concrete are set in opposition to two vertical concrete supports, which lend an elastic energy to the normally bulky and imposing ramps. This linear and gestural energy is underscored by the strange absence of cars; instead of supporting the path of automobiles speeding through the metropolis, this highway claims the negative space of the photograph as its own and navigates it with stunning confidence and control. In the lower corner, the viewer must be sure not to miss a tiny stop sign touched by graffiti, which offers us a hint of human presence struggling with the highway, and a pun on the term “signage.”

The tensions and contradictions in this piece establish a context for the rest of the show, which seems to explore a meeting-point between extreme light effects and the banal world of everyday events. It also gives us a reference to modern monumentality, and in the larger-than-life geometry of the highway ramp, calls out a suggestion of high minimalism and minimalist painting.

Hyde’s next two photographs are less interesting; both offer distant nighttime views of large buildings and surrounding trees under intense spotlights. These photos are a sort of reverse Turner; instead of distant romantic cities that appear as mirage in a light-soaked seascape, we find the imposing presence of contemporary American architecture and its electric lights that seep out menacing into the quiet night.

Turner occurred to me over and over again while viewing this show. This is because of certain pictorial ingredients that these photographers share with Turner. First, most of these photographers use light as a developing medium, in which an image emerges through subtle gradation to a state of visual clarity. Turner, much like a photographer, used light to develop the atmosphere in his paintings, instead of building the space with flat planes and draftsmanship. In addition, many of the featured photographs throw extreme qualities of light upon basic scenes of human existence, just as Turner would throw the elements of light and water upon his ships at sea and his European sea-cities. The main difference is in the type of life depicted: Turner was concerned with notions of the romantic, the national, the absolute and the sublime, while the photographers sharing wall space at G are far more interested in the smaller details of contemporary life. To their credit, the contradictions and light-filled moments in these photos offer a very interesting show that finds its own parodies of sublimity, and even a few instances of a cool-headed contemporary sublime.

Luisa Lambri’s laserchrome print, entitled “Untitled (Strathmore 11),” shows a collision of photography with the quiet discipline of Anges Martin. The photo is of a venetian blind with afternoon light- nothing more, nothing less. The slight and thin lines that describe the blinds and the subtle gradations of just a bit of sunlight bring Martin’s logic and intellectual sublime in contact with one of the most banal of all objects. The photo pokes fun at Martin’s metaphysical endeavors, showing an instance of perfect geometry and measurement meeting a perfectly commonplace moment. The subtleties of this piece also called to mind the quiet light and ruled lines of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.

Next to this piece is Hannah Starkey’s “May 2003.” This photograph would have been the highlight of the show had it not been for some grainy and dull moments. A woman smoking a cigarette gazes out at the viewer while sitting in a laundry room. Strangely, light entering the room from an unseen window highlights a floatation device hanging from the ceiling. The life-preserver brought themes of water, and thus Turner, back to my mind, and its bizarre contrast to a woman smoking a cigarette brought notions of expiration and illness to my mind. In this photo, the dangerous qualities of light came to the forefront. Like the cigarette, it can burn, it can cause decomposition, it can make a new thing old, and it can bleach clothing. Light’s more subtle dangers are aligned with the extreme violence of Turner’s rain, light, and sea storms.

Miguel Angle Rios’ series of untitled prints held pride of place at G, occupying the middle wall of the gallery. The basic blacks and whites of these photos show us a series of cables tied to knobs of some sort. The image, again like Turner, borders on abstraction, but hints at the ropes and knots one might find on a sailboat. The series shows the ropes slowly becoming detached from the undefined knobs and snapping back in space, revealing the hidden tension in such banal situations.

Of all the photographs, the most disappointing were Paul Vinet’s “People” images. These two photographs show distant images of tourists and city-goers dispersing through a white sea of acrylic paint. The images held an undeniable similarity to Turner simply because the viewer finds images of humanity in a distant and expansive sublime light. However, the sublime light is acrylic paint, slathered upon the photo in thick globs that mock the gestural violence of Jackson Pollock. These works are an ill-conceived, cliché, and downright academic critique of modernism that has been played over and over again. If viewers are interested in a critique of modern painting, I suggest the Johns show at the National Gallery as an alternative, where one finds parody handled with subtlety, tact, and understanding. These two works appeared whiny and formulaic in comparison to the other photos and the Johnsian critique of the modern gesture.

G Fine Art meant for this show of photography to be an accompaniment to its supposed main attraction, which is a collection of several works by local DC area artists. It seemed strange to me that the photos held so much space in the main gallery when the local work held the main title for the show (“Civilian at G”). These local works struck me as weak and unrelated, and it was difficult to give them time and attention when shown next to the photographs adjacent.

Overall, I was surprised by the photography at G; photography is rumored to have been one of the deathblows to painting, along with film and television. This show displayed strong photographs which, instead of stealing from painting or riding its coattails, suggest a relationship that might not be so negative and harmful to explore.

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