Detail from Grace Weston's "Identity Crisis"
The defining boundaries of photography as expressive medium continue to expand as illustrated in the Archer Gallery's current show, New Directions. The show gives the world's tiniest hors d'oeuvre of where the current art world is taking the medium, and Jeffrey Archer does an excellent job refreshing our tired eyes and awaking the mind with the ambitions of this collection of photographers, weary as they are from the barrage of images the media spits at us on a daily basis. Photography is everywhere these days, yet this collection of artists test and question the definition of the medium, brandishing it with sophisticated flourish as they poo poo Ansel Adams' long list of temperatures and variables and create their own game. They emphasize the fact that photography is very much the process of making a picture as opposed to the common notion of taking one, and we can bring this thought back with us from the gallery and slap it down on both the front page of the morning news and the Situationists' hyperreal cafe table.
Daniel Barron's work is prime example of the made image. Barron uses the photograph as would an abstract painter the canvas, creating his own language with manna and mirrors and technology and ending up with the alternate universe that mimics our own. His diptych, "Girl", is the only tidbit of this photographer's oeuvre the Archer gallery gives us, yet it is rather definitive of Barron's investigation. His bits of flesh and fluid and synthetics are the smarting spurs the artist uses to incite his viewer to look into a closer examination of the state of the world, and humanity's relationship to its relatively new technological surroundings, altered pace, and thus existence.
"Girl" mutely implores the viewer to discuss the more specific definition of femininity. Barron suggests the notion with texture and the gamble that the viewer will at once see milk and skin and blood and pink and think female. This is, of course, up for debate, yet Barron has undoubtedly considered this, and throws it back to the endless discussion at the roundtable forum of form and content. Since these are photographs and not paintings, they are immediately mysterious. We know the artist has manipulated something from reality, yet exactly what is unclear. There is a desire to figure this out, to understand how the artist actually photographed such dynamic visual works. Yet upon giving up this desire, one discovers the delight to be had in letting go of this very human desire to understand and to simply look, unhindered by the overpowering social and personal connotations of concrete images. This is Barron's rabbit in the hat, his magic. These are the most subversive images in the gallery in terms of the actual act of photographing.
Holly Andres' work moves the viewer into another quite popular genre of contemporary photography. Her suite of eerie set ups immediately calls to mind one of the more well known photographers in this genre, Gregory Crewdson. Andres belongs to Crewdson's camp in lighting, mood, and the appearance of all of her very staged characters having the appearance of awkwardly being caught in the middle of some mundanely eccentric yet coincidentally very significant act. The interior stages she creates for her characters are fantastically hip and brutally suburbanite. Andres' photographic prowess lets her use complicated lighting set ups to infuse her spaces with psychology and the ethereal glow of the metaphysical. Oddly, this scenario has the effect of a philosophical stroking of the chin and a Freudian furrow of the brow as one ponders the symbolism behind these moves. As the viewer moves from one photo to the next, it becomes clear that there are elements of forced ideals weighing upon these childrens' delicate frames. American ideals of masculinity and femininity and their subsequent duties and expectations infuse each image with a tension that holds best with the solitary portraits. The conglomeration of characters in the group portraits is only slightly awkward, as if the energies from too many mangle and confuse one another. Yet their interactions are poignant and thus deserve further exploration. The distance from lens to subject is also of consequence and perhaps should be more delicately addressed; I felt as if I was too close to the faces and bodies of the subjects, and my sense of viewer as candid voyeur lost itself in a mere matter of feet.
Blake Andrews identitiy in this particular show is that of the classic street photographer. He works in the traditional black and white, 35 millimeter format. In many ways, the choice of working in such a traditional vein makes Andrews' work the most challenging to address as an artist for the tendency to repeat history instead of moving it forward. It is noted in the short blurbs on the artists that Andrews is part of the Portland Grid Project, a group of photographers dedicated to the act of documenting the city of Portland. Either Mr. Andrews has been misrepresented with this certain collection of photos, or his work is simply out of place amid the rest of the show. There is no real sense of what exactly Mr. Andrews strives toward or wishes to engage. The photos seem flat, the images unintentional, both in editing and execution. The photographs exhibit little evidence of a honed craft, not simply because they are not big and flashy, but because there is a lack of attention paid to it. In today's age of flashy large and medium formats and digital manipulation, the 35 millimeter tradition has quite a power in both the grit of its grain and the nostalgia of its dying use. However, what Mr. Andrews does with this given power is a mystery in the photos shown here, and the viewer continues through the gallery space confused as to the "new direction" of this type of photography.
In this same half of the gallery, the artist Liz Haleys work hangs, acting as foil to both Andres and Andrews' presence. Her work completely subverts the notion of 'photographer' as she never employs the use of her camera. Her work derives from collaged elements which she fuses together to form images that are hip, filmy, and the album covers of solitude. Despite their reference to the past's big grain, there is a cool aspect of science fiction that destroys melancholy and the urge towards sentiment. The images convey their solitude to each other in that they cannot seem to reach the outside world of either the viewer or the image on the wall next to them. An inanimate life force permeates each of Haley's images and suggests they may edge off of the wall on their own accord and decide to walk out of the gallery. This is most apparent between the triptych, "Solitary Object 1"'s three elements. They seem characters in an existential play, unable to communicate, yet inextricably bound to one another. Haley's other piece, "A Bath in the Sea 1", hangs opposite this triptych, self absorbed and humming, the political implications of veiled Islamic women pulling a black diamond in the sky echoing infinitely off the edges of the picture plane.
Detail from Liz Haley's triptych "Solitary Object 1"
As one moves into the right half of the gallery, there is a different sort of experimentation that has more to do with subject matter than the use of the camera, and the walls that face each other share aspects of investigation. Amy Archer's rhythmic abstractions are elegant and serene and endeavor to recontextualize commonplace objects and places. This suite of three emphasize Archer's playful use of her images to form virtual photographic textiles that subvert both image and symbolism. The end of this play seems to obliquely reference op-art without making any claims for or towards it. Archer's finale seems to be simply the joy of pattern and color and the endless possibilities they themselves present.
This aspect of play is shared by the artist's work hanging on the wall opposite, Grace Weston. Weston's work is very much about play, not simply because she uses dolls and tiny dioramas to illustrate her works but because of her sense of satire and dark humor that she strings up like the house lights on the stages of her tiny microcosmos. Weston reminds us that even cynics like to play with dolls as she brings fairy tale and fantasy back to the contemporary world as searingly relevant commentary. Occasionally, the work tends to be slightly too literal in relation to its titles, but there is so much eye candy to be had with her saturated setups that it does not detract the viewer from lingering to look and to laugh (at himself).
The last two artists representing the New Directions of photography at the Archer Gallery this month are Mark Hooper and Tamara Lischka. These two artists mirror one another in their fascination with the infinitum of worldly exploration, and the impossibility of mentally or physically grasping (no pun intended Ms. Lischka) respective worlds in all of their awe and glory. Both artists work in black and white and are masters of their craft, yet where these two artists begin to differ is in the treatment of the illustration of their awe. Lischka's examination involves the meeting of marine and terrestrial life, and her silver gelatin prints appear to be made of satin and are exposed and printed with such finesse that I am sure Edward Weston himself would have been impressed. However, Lischka's choice to portray this fascination with the abyss with two enclosed hands can be off putting. Hands have become a cliche of sentiment in an arena that stretches from the Old Testament to Hallmark, and at first glance, Lischka's work dangerously touches on this kitschy bag. There is mystery in these silky prints, in the contrast of skins, yet it is not pushed enough. This is also where Lischka and Hooper's work meet. His portrayal of the inability is to measure the earth's dwarfing scope is quirky and effective. However, the use of Lewis and Clark as the vehicles for this exploration seems too didactic. There is a general knowledge of Lewis and Clark, especially here in the Northwest, that the viewer can assume and write off upon viewing these photographs. This characteristic does not let the viewer into the work with his or her own assumptions, philosophies, and connotations.
New Directions is a thought provoking, introductory teaser into the current practice of photography. The sum of the show's parts is the amoeba like illustration that ends up splattered on the map of directions to New Photo. There is no current dogma any longer accompanying or stilting the world of photography, and all that is left is ambitious trial and error into its untapped abilities of expression. We as viewers and makers are left in the abstract interim of total freedom.
Archer Gallery, Penguin Student Union Building
Ft. Vancouver Way, Vancouver, WA 98663
I think that "dangerously touching on a kitschy bag" is what makes Lischka's work risky and good. She seems to be engaged in a dialog with Weston and his followers, as well as others who've walked this line before, most notably Mapplethorpe. Having perused her website, I sense a deep engagement with the body the body as formal vehicle that is anything but arbitrary and very self-aware.