The process can get a bad rap from the general public. It implies some sort of detached automatism or imposed order that strives to regulate or “normalize” that which is inherently variable. But for many artists, the process is a practice of revelation and deeper understanding. If you don’t believe me, visit the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts’ recently opened outpost for Constructed & Found (through August 23).
Each of the photographers represented on the walls of the MMPA – Brendan Bullock, Luc Demers, Damir Porobic, John Woodruff and Barbara Goodbody – approaches his or her work through a unique process. It can be consciously constructed (Woodruff) or intentionally deconstructed (Porobic). Other times it’s about abstracting light and landscape through movement (Goodbody). Still other times it’s simply a matter of radically narrowing the focus to a tiny detail of what one encounters (Bullock). And in one case it is an elaborate system for expressing the infinite variability and mystery of natural phenomena (Demers).
In the case of Demers – whose work I consider to be the most influential in the exhibition – the images represent the confluence of process, impermanence and poetry (not necessarily in that order). It was the work I was immediately drawn to, despite the bold, almost baroque exuberance of Woodruff’s fabricated flower paintings, which are certainly more overtly arresting.
Demers’ allusion to Joseph Albers is at least superficially obvious: juxtapositions of colors in a square-in-square format. But these are so much more than formulaic combinations and recombinations of hues that explore the effect of color on our perception. Albers astutely addressed the subtlety of the relationships between the gradations of shades, as well as the deeper effects (emotional, psychological, physical) that these gradations had on the human psyche. But Albers used color to achieve these ends, while Demurs, more poignant and lyrical, uses light and time.
Demers photographs outdoors for his “Ambient” series. He cuts square windows into sheets of white cardboard and aligns them, spaced one after the other, on an axis with the open sky. His camera is positioned at one end, framing this succession of windows. Light hits each of these plates in a different way, temporarily coloring them. The light that reaches the back of one panel reflects that color onto the front of the next. This means that the light in any two panels will always be of a slightly different quality and tone than the space between the next two panels.
The quiet beauty of these works is not that they are a recording of a particular time of day. If so, they would not be much different conceptually from On Kawara’s “Date” paintings, which he began in 1966 and continued until his death in 2014. It was all about recording (and diverting attention from) time. art as object).
Demers’ poetry lies in the feeling of transience that his works radiate. In Kawara’s paintings, days are set in an identical, repeating format, so each loses its individuality and specificity over time. With their soft lines and gradations of tones, Demers’ works capture the light and mood of a moment before changing again and again in the next millisecond. We literally look at a past moment but can feel its warmth or coldness, its softness or its brightness.
And we can do this while intuiting the unchanging continuum of time. Demers, too, consciously searches for certain shades and qualities of light, and pulls the shutter release at the exact moment he perceives that particular pink or lavender or yellow he’s been waiting for. You’re worth the whole show.
Porobic’s work looks at how our mind constructs and records an image, and how the brain reconstructs it as memory. His trial is also an exploration of his own identity as a Bosnian-American citizen. He photographs everyday objects and phenomena that he sees outside of his studio: the sky, the surface of water, a truck, an Adirondack chair. He then takes this digitized image and combines it with his master printmaking skills.
The artist can isolate specific sections, colors and/or pixels within the digital record and then print only those sections. He can then isolate a different area and/or color and feed the previously created sub-image to the printer so that the second programmed section is printed over the original photo. Porobic can do this about 40 times until the picture is complete. But it’s complete in a whole new way, because in the printing process, lines, colors, and sections don’t fit neatly to their original borders. It’s like screen printing colors that don’t exactly meet along the originally specified color ranges of the original artwork from which it is reproduced.
The resulting photographs are blurred and indistinct, much like our identities and memories. Both, like Porobic’s paintings, are overlaid with first impressions filtered through imprecise memory, intervening experiences, and hindsight understanding. The basic image remains, but its supposedly indisputable reality at the time of its emergence is shaky at best and probably no longer equally relevant.
On another level, these works question a universally unchallenged assumption of traditional photography as a medium that captures the reality of a moment and freezes it for eternity. But what can we really hold on to forever?
Woodruff, on the other hand, throws reality to the wind. His process in this latest series is to take hundreds of photographs of flowers, print them on paper and cut out the blossoms by hand, then place them in collaged groupings on several panes of glass spaced a few inches apart. He also trains light between layers to illuminate the flowers in different ways. Finally, his camera is positioned directly over the layered composition, so the resulting frame is actually a look down through the layers.
It then becomes impossible to look at the flat image and determine which flowers are at what depth, or whether flower images are in fact adjacent to others on the same plane or through multiple planes. These images are pure art, but also stunning in a way that boggles our perception. Our brains and eyes cannot distinguish exactly what we see, what is in the foreground and what is in the background.
Woodruff’s earlier series, in which he used the same process on photographs of stars in the night sky, moonlight, or sunlight, remain more interesting to me, mainly because they had the added perceptual confusion that they actually appear to be emitting points of light, as if illuminated by small LED pears behind the print. It’s not that these aren’t interesting; they are. And they have a chaotic lushness that captures flowers in their most ripe moment – bright, fully open and in your face – which inevitably also implies decay and death, pointing to the impermanence of things. We can see them as both fertile and burial.
Like all of the aforementioned artists – yes, like the medium of photography itself – Bullock’s work deals with the past. While he’s been out and about with his camera for many years, filming specific events or stories, he’s made space to literally focus on often-overlooked details. I say literally because what appear to be abstract compositions are real but closely observed.
Of one job he was filming (an abandoned boathouse in Camden), he says, “It was like everyone went out for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon in 1990 and never came back.” That experience is expressed here with a photograph, the a Hyper close-up detail of the inside of a drawer in the boathouse office is where mice had been chewing and scattering the bristles of a brush that someone had put inside.
At first glance, the work “Draftsman’s Brush Bristles #2” looks like a black and white line drawing by Miró, or perhaps the same artist’s pencil drawings on gray paper. Our closeness to the dusty, bristle-strewn drawer becomes totally abstract – again similar to memory – capturing an elapsed moment. The same thing happens with scratched pictures on a wall in Tanzania, patterns on the roofing felt of a building in Cleveland, and so on.
Last but not least are two large format works by Barbara Goodbody, a popular Portland photographer who has been experimenting with the photographic medium since 1986 when she attended the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport. (Now called Maine Media Workshops + College, there is currently an exhibition curated by Bruce Brown at Cove Street Arts through July 30th showcasing the work of various alumni.)
For these two images, Goodbody used an ordinary plastic camera as she photographed sunrises in the western deserts while herself on the move. It doesn’t get much more ephemeral. 2009’s ‘Sunrise I’ is stunning, almost like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of sunlight shining through a gap between two mesas. The sunlight appears as a blinding, near-nuclear explosion at top center of the image, with a single jet of hot light splitting the two landmasses.
This image has tremendous power, abstracting a natural phenomenon while conveying its fierceness more effectively than if she had stopped and clicked the camera. We would not have realized that heat and light travel and scald. We also understand that like lightning, we see something that happened in a flash – no pun intended.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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