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Reality Bytes

What You Get isn't Quite What You See in the Digital and Altered Photos At School 33

A Development: Bruce Mckaig takes photo chemicals to the point of abstraction in Untitled.
No-Tell Motel: Insert your own narrative here, in Wesley Kline's untitled photo series.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/20/2002

The 'Pencil of Nature' in Our Digital Age: Photoimagery in Recent Art; sculptures and drawings by Youngmi Song; and Prometheus in Baltimore: An Installation by Timothy Lonergan

School 33 Art Center through Dec. 6

Does anybody simply take a photograph anymore? Sure, there are photographers today still working in a journalistic style, with everything that implies in terms of straightforward and, to use that loaded term, objective presentation. Increasingly, though, artists are making rather than taking photographs. Some carefully stage-manage the people and props before snapping, others indulge in digital wizardry to remake the world, and still others mix photo chemicals and other media to come up with pictures that test the traditional definitions of a photograph. Reality is what you decide to make of it, they seem to be saying.

In any event, that's a lot for any single exhibit to try to say. Curator Virginia Adams manages to at least suggest enough of that discourse in the compact exhibit The 'Pencil of Nature' in Our Digital Age: Photoimagery in Recent Art. One of the best recent exhibits at the School 33 Art Center, it features Margaret Paris, David Douglas, Bernhard Hildebrandt, Daithi O'Glaisain, Bruce McKaig, Wesley Kline, and Ted Leigh. Even if you're not crazy about everything you see here, you do get a sense of the big picture.

One of the most telling photographers in the show, in terms of current art-world trends, is Wesley Kline, whose "à huis clos" (French for "behind closed doors" or "in camera") consists of a series of vivid prints mounted on thin panels that project from the wall and are grouped in such a way as to suggest narrative connections. These are very selectively composed images of such things as a telephone cord, flames, a woman standing in film noir-suggestive manner in front of a motel, a smiling face, a pile of lumber, a trench coat-clad figure, a chandelier, and a woman standing outside a house at night.

If there is a narrative here, it's so splintered that Kline leaves it up to you to find. Although the photos are sensuous snippets of reality and it's enjoyable to project your own meaning onto them, this sort of ambiguity has become the contemporary norm to such an extent that maybe a more radical move--in an art trend pendulum-swinging sense--would be to storyboard a more specific meaning and encourage the viewer to respond to that.

Regardless of what sort of sequence you'd prefer, one of the most interesting aspects of this group show is that some of its participants explore how we look for meaning within an image, as well as how that image connects to another. This is hardly a new pursuit, as one is reminded by looking at the digitally manipulated images that make up David Douglas' "Drink Up." The repeated black-and-white shots of a water-filled glass evoke scientifically oriented photographic studies. Similarly, the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies are recalled in Douglas' repeated shots of a running cat. What's notable about this cat within the overall composition is that its shadow-casting presence and movement are digitally controlled in a way that would have been foreign to Muybridge's point-and-shoot manner. Douglas' composition also includes a tiled floor and other architectural elements that are the result of digitally defined (rather than "documentary") space.

Reality also is considerably altered in three digitally tinkered-with landscape photographs by Margaret Paris. In "Delta Factory at Sunset, Louisiana," the landscape is defined by distant smokestacks presumably spewing smoke in such an all-transforming manner that the sky is a study in melting gray-white hues above a purple-colored ground. We'll always have Paris and her digital palette to remind us how pollution has altered the American landscape.

If photography presents fictional realities as often as "real" reality in much of the exhibited work, you're then prompted toward further reflections on what photography can do beyond what we were brought up to expect from it. Reflection is the literal subject of untitled works by Bernhard Hildebrandt, including a diptych whose left panel is a painting and whose right panel is a photograph of that same painting. The abstract painting presents a cluster of black markings against a deep blue, glossy-textured background, and it's highly reflective surface functions as a very dark mirror. You can make out the painting's black markings in Hildebrandt's accompanying photograph, which was shot by daylight in the artist's studio, but otherwise the image mostly presents a murky sense of the studio space as it's reflected in the painting's surface. Your own reflection barely registers when you're standing in front of the photograph. In this interplay of abstract painting, real photograph, and literal reflection, which of the two images is more real?

This painting-and-photograph pairing is aptly installed near Bruce McKaig's untitled photograph, whose appearance is the result of placing photographic chemicals on paper, exposing it to light, and exhibiting what resembles an Abstract Expressionist painting. In its own way, it's the truest photograph in the entire exhibit.

While at School 33, go upstairs to see two other worthwhile exhibits. The Korean-born, Baltimore-based Youngmi Song uses rice paper as the basis for both her drawings and sculptures. Fishing line, pen-drawn lines, pins, and even plastic eyeballs are among the means through which she gently yet rigorously organizes pictorial space in her works on paper. Her floor-standing sculptures use rice paper to make things like a wedding dress; as in the fabric sculptures produced by feminist artist Beverly Semmes, a flowing dress is both delicately beautiful and forcefully assertive as it claims space on the gallery floor.

The locally based Timothy Lonergan occupies the Installation Space with Prometheus in Baltimore, which uses the Greek myth as a metaphorical reference point for his own struggle with AIDS. Based on a performance piece in which the artist twirled a flame-colored piece of cloth to evoke Prometheus' gift of fire, this installation presents a video of the performance, wall mural-sized photos taken from the video, and hanging pieces of fabric. Considering that the installation is essentially documentation, it exists pretty well as an artistic environment of its own.

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