Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of "Heads of Hydra" a photographers' collective. Curated by Richard Peterson, being shown at Vertigo Art Space.

"The Poet makes himself a SEER by a long, immense, and reasoned DERANGEMENT OF ALL THE SENSES. All forms of love, suffering, and madness; he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he really needs faith, all the superhuman strength there is, where he becomes in the midst of everyone else the great sick man, the great criminal, the great condemned — and the supreme Knower! — since he has reached the UNKNOWN!" –Arthur Rimbaud

The annual photo show at Vertigo Art Space, curated by Richard Peterson, is once again a fun challenging show. If you just stop in to look at “pretty pictures” you will be sadly disappointed. However, if you take the time to absorb and think about what you are surrounded by you will have a chance to see, and be moved by, an amalgam of contemporary and historic photography.

The show opens by the above quote by Arthur Rimbaud, a French Symbolist poet from the 19th century. Rimbaud’s method of writing was not about telling a story accurately, or describing one’s surroundings truthfully. He wrote to evoke a mood or emotion, and he held emotional honesty above a literal translation of events to be more “factual.” Combine this with Richard Peterson’s predilection for the surrealists, a movement whose core belief is that artworks are mere artifacts of thought and therefore should not be taken too seriously, and what you have is a show of ideas- big, sweaty, thick, gritty ideas.

Technically photographs may be simple tangible artifacts of thought, but in the case of this show they are at the very least well crafted artifacts. There has been a movement within photography to blast a misguided view of photographic prints being cheap since they are “just prints” that can be printed and reprinted at the artist’s discretion. In light of this, many photographic artists create artworks that can be easily identified as one-of-a-kind unique images. This is made apparent by the resurgence of interest in historic processes (processes whose final products are inherently singular) and the plethora of multi-media artworks hanging on gallery walls today. Multi-media in this context is not digital double speak for a slideshow with music. I am referring to painting, sculpture, and printmaking blending seamlessly with photography to create imagery that is instantly recognizable as a one-of-

a-kind original.

Is this kind of uniqueness a necessary element for beauty? Of course, as a photographer I would say unequivocally that, no, no it is not. This may be a knee jerk reaction though and not very honest, so maybe we should let it rest.

In the case of David Zimmer this unique quality is captured through the marks on the photograph’s surface made by the hand of the artist. The paint brush applied surface texture, presentation, and scale, all speak to how a photograph can be like a painting. Or, perhaps, how they are different. In any event, the ambiguity of the medium leads the viewer to be more interested in the chiaroscuro of the subject as opposed to how it was made. Some photo/paintings are only interesting for their technical choices, whereas Zimmer’s simplified, virtually monochromatic color palette somehow pushes the viewer to consider the subject depicted in the image as opposed to how it was made. Oddly the inclusion of the subject’s ring adds a sense of identity to the apparent nude in both images. Often portraits that use the body as subject are not about specific people, not about identity, but in these two works we are only given the clue of a ring and yet we are already searching for the supposed identity of the sitter. Is she married, does she have a lover, lacking honest color and surrounding detail we wonder where she is, is she alone? All questions we would not bother with without the simple inclusion of that ring! On a purely technical note: though it is a contrasty piece there is flatness to the image that is hard to get away from, specifically the shadow tones of the figure feel one dimensional and the midtones are non existent.

Sabin Aell’s work as well carries with it a sense of uniqueness. In her work though, we get the sense that photography may just be but one tool in her tool box of artistry. She is making use of sculpture, painting, graphic design, printmaking and one even gets a sense of jewelry design- in her piece that quite literally hangs on and off the wall. Her work has a very post-modern approach to it in the way the imagery feels appropriated, the metal work feels stolen and the wall vinyl feels like it was lifted from a different project. It is the coming together of these parts that makes her work so engaging. Like many works in this show, it is not the imagery that is so arresting, it is how the imagery is presented that makes the statement. Her pieces have a printmakers aesthetic, with the layered limited color palette textural images, reminiscent of multiple passes through an intaglio press with only slight ink color changes being made. To add to this aesthetic are the rough edges, artificially showing the wear and tear of time, that speak to it being a work on paper. The graphic black cut out on the wall, however, though referenced in the imagery, still feels a bit forced. The imagery has such a diverse and wonderful attention to detail in its handling of texture and blending of historic and more contemporary methods of mark making, that the wall cut outs feel pedestrian and foreign in comparison. The metal work however is a very nice touch, this is the fore mentioned jewelry aesthetic. The aluminum supports for the work feel like grossly enlarged dainty necklace pendants, lending a light modern feel to an otherwise moody work.

Set up before the viewer in the center of the room, like suspended dominoes, are Richard Peterson’s works. Each image has it’s paired reversal impeccably printed on the back, so that the viewer is invited to visit these works in the round, much like a sculpture. And much like a well crafted sculpture, once you look at the piece in a full circle, you are happy that you did so- the pieces are quite rich and a joy to look at. Anytime you present two dimensional works in a three dimensional space there will be issues, and Peterson handles these well, mostly by adhering to a simple and clean method of hanging. But also in his placement of the pieces in a row that grants them the dimensionality that they would lack if hung separately in the middle of the room. Though historically relevant, the black ribbon falls flat as it competes with the rest of the simple design- a bit tired looking. Still, transparency is the theme here, so much so, that one begins to think that all of the supposed concreteness of our world may in truth be a wee bit more flimsy and transparent than we were willing to admit at first blush. The glass mats, the suspension, even the window light of the space itself speaks to the illusion that is our world. The images themselves are filled with symbolic imagery alluding to the broader theme of the impermanence of our reality.

It is refreshing for a show to require something of the viewer, that is to say that to fully enjoy the show you must think. Not just about each piece, but about the juxtaposition of all of these works in one room.

Look around and let your mind wander.


  1. Nice review, Greg. I have to admit that I didn't get as much out of the show as you did, but your review made me wish that I had worked harder to appreciate it. (I should go back before it closes.) Your pictures helped immensely, especially in showing the complexity of Sabin's work. I found it hard to see in the gallery but your photos brought out the texture and design elements that I missed. For a different take on the same show, CPAC has a review by Kate Donaldson on its blog at http://www.cpacphoto.org/

  2. Thank you for your insightful writing, Greg. So many people are narrow-minded and have a hard time thinking outside the boundaries of convention and the expected. It takes an especially intuitive and open-minded person to think outside of convention and comprehend non-linear manifestations.