Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email


Surreal Life

Posthumous Exhibit Shows McGovern's Command of the Odd and Everyday

Ebb Tide: Mike McGovern’s work often juxtaposed careful composition with surreal content, as in this 1996 shot taken in Ocean City.

By Caroline M. Saffer | Posted 5/16/2001

Mike McGovern: A Retrospective

Photo Works through May 29

Last August, Baltimore freelance photographer and former City Paper contributor Mike McGovern, 38, went on a kayaking expedition in Alaska. Boating solo, he got caught in a storm and lost his life.

This month, the Hampden photography center and gallery Photo Works is displaying a small retrospective of McGovern's work, co-curated by gallery director Sarah Reed and McGovern's family. The show's 33 photographs, mainly black and white, range in subject from portraits of children to surrealistic, hand-manipulated works. But as broadly as they range in topic, the photographs are almost uniformly marked by careful, often symmetrical compositions that contrast with their often surreal content, and fascination with the juxtaposition of close-up and distant perspectives. The body of work shown here gives eloquent testimony to the artist's power to impose his creative vision onto a scene from everyday life, transforming it into an entity all his own.

One of the few color photographs, 1993's "Saw Blade on a Post," was taken in New Mexico, a state whose land and culture have inspired many other artists, from Georgia O'Keefe to Edward Weston. The worn wooden post in the photograph tilts against the gradating blue of the summer sky and its looming patches of white clouds, adding a sense of upward dynamism to the static landscape. The rusted, broken blade nailed to the post, catching glints of light on its alternately curved and sharp edges, gives the post a totemic character; the blade's shape, much like an abstracted sun, stands in for the real sun, which is not actually in the picture. The sun motif, appropriate not only to the landscape of New Mexico but also the region's native culture, is then demystified by the presence of a somewhat broken-down ranch house in the middle ground of the picture, amid the monotone green patches of desert vegetation. A line of laundry hangs before the house like a string of prayer flags.

One subject that appears several times throughout the retrospective is public sculpture. McGovern appropriates these established pieces of art and bends them to his own vision, creating new works of art in the process. One particularly striking example is 1997's "Statue of Christ," in which the ancient prophet is set within the more modern, detached architecture of what could be a museum space. Jesus, clad in a toga, stretches out his hand, thrusting it directly into the foreground so that his huge palm and bent fingers dwarf the rest of him. The viewer's eye travels up the slope of Jesus' arm to his face, tipped to look down at us. From this vantage point Christ's expression appears to be a slight smirk--more the look of a buddy reaching out to give a high-five than what the statue is actually supposed to depict, a peaceful prophet giving his benediction.

One of the exhibit's highlights is 1985's "Highway," one of McGovern's more overtly surreal photographs. A rearview mirror looms across the picture plane, with a man's eyes, partly in shadow, reflected on the left and a smaller, more distant reflection of a statue of a Native American astride a horse on the right. The man, his identity limited to the strip visible in the slim mirror, looks back to the statue. The figure of the statue, posed with head thrown back and arms outstretched, is flanked by a V of artificial lights, as if it is invoking some type of spirit. The photograph plays on multiple perspectives: The man seems to be having a vision (reflected or imagined) of this Indian while the Indian is having some type of spiritual experience, and the audience takes in the whole scene at once. The mirror, meanwhile, is set against the nighttime highway landscape of blurred headlights and streetlights punctuating solid darkness, adding to the mysterious atmosphere of the work.

The landscapes interspersed throughout the exhibit are also often imbued with McGovern's brand of surrealism. "Three Trees at Night" (1994) is carefully composed with one tree at dead center flanked by the other two, an elegant, restrained positioning that evokes a classical rendering of the three Graces. The leaves of the three trees glow with a blurred, feathery effect that effuses light across the perfectly black sky. Viewers cannot help but feel that they've stumbled upon a mystical occurrence within some ancient grove. McGovern captured nature in a manner that shows his genuine appreciation for it in all its diverse forms. How ironic, then, that the natural world he so eloquently depicted ultimately claimed his life. This show reminds us that Mike McGovern's sensitive creativity lives on in the sometimes surreal, usually spiritual, essence of his photography.

Related stories

Art archives

More Stories

Creative Proof (7/14/2010)
Documentarian Steven Fischer pushes artists to talk about what makes them make art

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010 (7/7/2010)

Quick Sketches (6/23/2010)

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter