JG/Contemporary until August 7
1014 Madison Ave, at 78th Street, 212 535 5767
“Alternate Visions: Contemporary Landscape”
Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, until August 29
41 E 57th Street, 13th Floor, between Fifth Ave and Madison Ave, 212 644 7171
A version of this article first appeared in The New York Sun, July 31, 2003
“Nature Photography” at JG/Contemporary is a six-person show, or at least it is if collaborative duos count as singular persons (the line-up includes creative partners Katleen Sterck and Terry Rozo). This might seem a pedantic point, but actually issues of identity and facture are very apropos. This exhibition includes both manipulated and straight images in a way that asks questions about the status of photography. The very title contains a double exposure, so to speak: The show is as much about the nature of photography as it is of photographs of nature.
A “straight” photograph is one in which the camera fulfills, in its artificial, mechanical, interfering way, the natural, spontaneous, unmediated vision of the photographer, whereas a “manipulated” image is one where, using a computer program, the artist crafts the image during the suspended, post-shot, pre-print phase of its life. Manipulation is to the photograph almost what genetic modification is to agriculture: a strategy that spreads fear among many and bemusement to the insider to whom Photoshop is merely an updated way to participate in the antics of the darkroom – just as breeding or cross-fertilization are old-fashioned equivalents of “Frankenstein farming”.
In a way, the straight/modified issue is an update of the old paragone debate that still bedevils (and perhaps always will) any discussion about photography: the bugbear of art versus commerce. What’s refreshing about this small but thoughtful grouping at JG, however, is that the debate actually cuts across a technical divide. The difference between those images that invite dismissal as craft and those that demand analysis as art comes down to qualities of decision-making, not categories of technique.
The Sterck and Rozo team and Dirk Westphal both favor high artifice, heavy editing, blown-up scale, and prodigious slabs of plexi, but (forgive this tabloidism [to their credit, The New York Sun didn’t!]) Sterck and Dirk and chalk and cheese. Mr. Westphal, in making images of pet fish suspended in washed-out white space, seems to be trying to do for goldfish what William Wegman has achieved for Weimaraners. The results, however, are humorless (despite the pretence of the titles), slick and corporate-looking. Ms. Sterck and Ms. Rozo, on the other hand, generate exquisite, enigmatic images that are disarmingly suggestive.
One such in the show takes brilliantly red autumnal foliage (quite possibly camped up on the computer) and isolates it on a steely frozen lake. The tree is centered, and double mirrored (one mirroring might be “natural” – that is to say, an actual captured reflection in water – but it’s ambiguous). The resulting form is weirdly heraldic, imbued with a life of its own, rather like a feathered headdress in a Max Ernst painting.
Kim Keever produces what at first seem painterly, romantic landscape explorations, photographic Caspar David Friedrichs, but any ambiguity quickly spends itself. Artifice isn’t implied so much as imposed. Until we are told how the artist has created elaborate set-ups of submerged models, the blurred goings on merely look like an unfortunate mix-up in the lab.
Susan Unterberg’s untitled riverscape, on the other hand, from her Pisces series (2003) and her earlier “Radiant Ivory” (1995), both C-prints, are genuinely profound explorations of spatial mysteries. Overhanging leaves visually ebb and flow into the water beneath them. Whether her effects are achieved thanks to masterful anticipations of the camera’s quirks or involve later darkroom interventions is entirely academic (there is certainly no question that the gorgeous printing contributes to the “painterliness” of the image). The important thing is the resulting sense of form meeting content, of the life of the lense mirroring the life of the pond. These are truly meditative images: Maker and viewer alike experience the nature of nature in the moment of beholding.
Ray Charles White also produces pleasing and dignified images of water, but the support (artily arranged aluminum panels), alas, lets the image down. His is a romantic soul trapped in a conceptualist sensibility. Keith Cottingham is the opposite. Too-clever-by-half manipulations have to be explained to be detected; otherwise they merely look like vintage scientific photogravures one might see tastefully framed in the science faculty lounge of an Ivy League School.
“Alternate Visions: Contemporary Landscapes” is a confounding title. An inquiry with the gallery led to an amusing conversation, the upshot of which was that “Americans love to abbreviate words whenever they can.” The corrected title, “Alternative Visions” makes semantic but hardly more critical sense. The visions of landscape here are for the most part conventional, soothing and restful. Michele Harvey’s bucolic scenes, which capture soft morning mist in glades or along country roads, would make a Hallmark card blush. Two artists hanging side by side, Katherine Hurley and Forest Moses, are virtually interchangeable, with their soft-focus Wolf Kahn-inspired autumnal palette (perhaps they are the “alternates” of the show’s shorter title). Harold Gregor is similarly derivative, only in his case at least there is evidence of better taste: His aerial perspectives in high-octane synthetic hues and dense, fiddly mark-making directly recall the example of Yvonne Jacquette.
Still, Katherina Rich Perlow’s extended summer exhibition is worth the elevator ride to the Fuller Building’s 13th Floor for a viewing of two painters of genuinely alternative (as in outsider) vision: Gail Boyajian and Scott Kahn. Ms. Boyagian is a modern-day fairy painter in the tradition of Louis M. Eilshemius; better still, her compressed virtuouso awkwardness recalls the German mannerist, Adam Elsheimer. Mr. Kahn paints as if he were early Chuck Close redoing Douanier Rousseau. The neat hedges and manicured lawns of his twee gardens are oblivious of irony. A compulsive cheeriness keeps them poised between heaven and hell. Such prissy precionism (we can virtually see each blade growing) borders on the psychotic, but pays off with a rich, glowing inner light.
A version of this article first appeared in The New York Sun, July 31, 2003print