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Picture This

Non-objective photography (?) at Second Floor Contemporary Gallery.


I asked an acquaintance departing the current exhibit at the Second Floor Contemporary Gallery what he thought of the photographs. He replied, "Photographs? Where were the photographs?" When I told the exhibition's artists -- Phillip Andrew Lewis and Martina Shenal -- about this incident, they were both delighted. Each aspires to create works that transcend conventional notions of what the medium can convey.

Photography is generally regarded as a means of documentation. Even when photographs accentuate formal characteristics over narrative, the duplicative nature of film demands a subject. But in truth, the element essential to the medium is light. It is the ephemeral quality of light, rather than subject matter, that is at the core of Lewis' and Shenal's inquiry.

The artists have titled their installations after Roman mythological figures. Lewis' series is titled "Venus," after the goddess of love and beauty, which relates to the rich pinks and oranges that are prevalent in his pictures. The Roman personification of the south wind, "auster," usually associated with fogs and rain or sweltering heat, is the title for Shenal's offering. The reference could be to the veiled subjects and the austere compositions of her pictures.

The ambiguity of Shenal's images is the result of objects being illuminated from behind and obscured by a translucent scrim, the focal point being the surface of the scrim itself, while the objects only appear as phantom traces. The distillation of the object through the use of this "distancing mechanism" is intended to emphasize the intangible and abstract. The artist's aim is to invite a subjective response from the viewer in order, she says, to "lean away from the didactic or instructional."

Shenal's Pearl appears as a globular cluster, a radiant sphere burning from the center of the composition. The image evokes a contemplative mood, as the white center of the mandala is girdled by a constellation of blue atoms. The sacred overtone of this image, as in all of Shenal's work, is a function not only of its ambiguity but the symmetrical ordering of the composition as well. The warmth of Aureolin entices one into its mysteries, its central image softly emerging from the mottled ground like an apparition.

The ambiguous nature of Shenal's images is a means to break down subject matter, to underscore the experiential aspects of art. She cites as an influence the work of light and space artist Robert Irwin. She especially is drawn to his assertion that "in our pursuit to quantify and categorize everything, we miss a lot." Irwin's own work is very much preoccupied with getting to the core of perception, and Shenal's pictures mirror that aim by creating images that are at once visceral and enigmatic.

Lewis has developed a most unusual technique to create his distinctive images: Playing off of the landscape tradition of photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others, the artist uses a large-format camera to photograph the floodplain of the Mississippi River from a fixed location. But tradition gives way to innovation as the artist literally moves the camera back and forth during lengthy exposures that range from 15 to 40 minutes. The distortion that takes place only accentuates the horizontal bands that characterize the floodplain, and the artist accomplishes feats of color and form that are surprisingly painterly.

The five photographs of the floodplain differ very little from picture to picture, which somewhat disappointed some visitors to the gallery. Generally, each image consists of an expanse of pink sky above a mixture of red umber and tobacco brown, parted at the horizon by a ribbon of dark lavender. One of the most lovely aspects of the photographs is the rich saturation of color, and if one is patient enough to give them their due, the peculiarities of each image reveal themselves.

Standing before Lewis' northeast 1:41-2:02, the picture elicits an experience of space that is mesmerizing. In some regards, the dissolution of the particular through the movement of the camera has the effect of communicating a feeling of atmospheric depth that a straight photograph could only illustrate. Interestingly enough, I was reminded of being moved in a similar way a few years ago by a painting by Mark Rothko at the Brooks. Each band of color seems to occupy its own spatial vicinity, and they vibrate in relation to one another in much the same manner as Rothko's rectangles.

Certainly, much of the impact of these images owes to the scale and presentation of the chromogenic prints. Both Lewis and Shenal have abandoned traditional mattes and frames in favor of mounting their photos on aluminum and Plexiglas, respectively, floating them above the surface of the wall. In this way, the effectiveness of color is maximized by not being placed behind glass. Lewis was particularly picky about the installation of his pictures, insisting on new movable walls and windows blocked so as to restrict the amount of sunlight entering the gallery. This obsession with presentation has paid off, and the new wall space will no doubt prove useful for future exhibits.

Through April 22nd at Second Floor Contemporary Gallery.

A couple of other artists around town seem to be playing with form and space as well. The new work of Mark Rouillard at Jay Etkin Gallery and Pinkney Herbert at David Lusk Gallery offers a fascinating spin on their respective painting practices. Rouillard the realist and Herbert the abstractionist seem to be inching their way into each other's territory.

Rouillard's new series of three paintings is titled "Reflection," which indeed isolates the reflections of boats on the swirling waves of a lake. By restricting his composition to the surface of the water itself, the object per se gives way to the dissolution of form, and the resulting images could be mistaken for abstract paintings. Once more, in each successive picture, the painterly quality becomes more accentuated and details give way to a broader handling of marks. As always, Rouillard is the consummate craftsman, and even as his strokes become more painterly and loose, all his characteristic grace is left intact.

I am shocked and tickled pink (no pun intended) by the new work of Herbert, as his painterly impulses move in the direction of illusionistic space. Don't get me wrong. The artist's gestural proclivities are still there, but several new innovations truly create a feeling of depth. Herbert has taken to painting on burlap, and the coarse surface really suits his working method. It is especially luscious when he buries portions of the burlap's texture beneath a swath of impasto, while leaving plenty with just a thin wash. A sense of depth is also created by vague references to imagery such as bodies, hair, and whatnot. I love that autumn palette as well.

I am truly pumped by the kind of innovation and risk-taking that all of the above artists have brought to their art-making practices. Support your local artists by going to see these shows. They are as good as you might see anywhere.

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