Photography as an all-terrain vehicle

The lumber room's "Terrain Shift" photography show finds the art form in transition

"Terrain Shift" at the lumber room

“Terrain Shift” at the lumber room

By PATRICK COLLIER

As hard as she may have tried, Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” did not take all of the fun out of the practice. Yes, photography is fundamentally nostalgic in its temporality and purpose, and in its ubiquity, sometimes unavoidably banal.

Still, like junkies on an IV drip of our vice of choice, we pour through images in magazines and scroll websites. We expeditiously and efficiently document everything from breakfast and family gatherings to our surroundings and even of other people taking photos. And some of us call this art. We cannot help ourselves in the looking and doing, for as Sontag also knew, on either side of or away from the camera, photography is a mighty powerful medium.

Thirty years ago, a young painter was applying to MFA programs. She had, if you can believe it, never before used any camera besides an Instamatic. All of the schools to which she was applying required 20 images of her work. A photographer friend of hers agreed to document her paintings and some drawings for a modest fee. It would take a week before 35mm slides of the work would be available to view.

Despite the usual doubts any artist worth her salt carries, the painter was not without talent and she was (and is) aware of this and remained confident and hopeful that her work was strong enough to get her a slot in a good school. She anxiously awaited the photographer’s call to come over and cull through slides to select the best 20. Yet, when the call came, she was unprepared for what she saw on the photographer’s light box.

The images of her work were wonderful, better than she could ever have imagined, and in some ways better than the paintings and drawing were in real life. Or so it seemed. It was this last thought that confused her. While the photos certainly did not do justice to the texturing and layering of paint, the transparencies carried a weight of importance. Her work seemed more valid, as if it was being readied for a feature in an art magazine. This is what Sontag might term “the preponderance of veracity,” and I suspect it is in part why a good many photographers started out as painters.

Whether the intention is there or not, lumber room’s “Terrain Shift” is very much about this transition, at least as a point of departure, for this exhibit largely explores photography as art in light of other art forms.

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A case in point is Corin Hewitt’s expansive “Weavings: Performance #2,” a documentation of a 2007 residency at Small A Projects (a Portland gallery that, I am sad to say, I didn’t have a chance to visit before its owner, Laurel Gitlen, left for NYC). The project seems to have primarily taken place in a kitchen where the artist made pasta and then wove it into basket shapes. These weavings pair nicely with other objects such as clay (or dough?) replicas of half-eaten pears alongside the model for the sculpture. (The real bitten pear might also be considered a sculpture?) Everything that occurred in that kitchen, such as burning a cauliflower with a butane torch, along with anything else lying about the room, was fair game for the camera. The photographs are hybrids of art activities, made out of necessity as much as an aesthetic choice, referencing (presumably) non-extant sculpture and the ephemeral nature of performance.

Leslie Hewitt’s (not related to Corin) two untitled works (“Altogether Now”) and (“Holding Still”) continue this theme. Both pieces are very much about sculpture and painting in the way she has arranged the materials she has chosen to photograph. The same holds true for her “Riffs on Real Time (5-10) – quilt,” a patchwork of a photograph and fabric transformed into a C-print.

Elizabeth McAlpine's "The Map of Exactitude (#12)"

Elizabeth McAlpine’s “The Map of Exactitude (#12)”

INSTALL_017Elizabeth McAlpine expands on this mixing of media by giving us both photographs of architecture and sculpture that makes photographs. While architectural photography might be a celebration of the skill and vision of the architect and the craftsperson, and might attest to the photographer’s eye that appreciates these forms and structures, I put it in the same category as landscape photography as art: pretty to look at but little more than a guilty pleasure for the photographer. (Feel free to flail away.) What distinguishes McAlpine’s architectural photography from that of others is that she imposes her own forms onto the surfaces she is documenting by demarcating it with tape. This has the effect of adding another dimension for the viewer yet also reinforces the fact that the photograph we are looking at is, after all, a two-dimensional image.

The above pieces are situated in one of lumber room’s bedrooms. With them is another photo by McAlpine, entitled “The Map of Exactitude (#12),” which is a larger, stark, abstract and irregularly shaped black and white image made with a pinhole camera. The camera, which shares the same title as the print, is also part of the exhibit; yet, if one misses the multiple pinholes in its surface, it isn’t identifiable as a camera. The photograph is considerably larger than any one surface of the sculpture, and for the life of me I could not figure out how the print was made and had to ask. The paper had been carefully folded into the interior to cover the bottom and four side walls. The photo “conforms” to the sculpture, an idea I particularly like.

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Of course, if we are to speak of photography for any length of time, we inevitably return to Sontag, so it should not come as a surprise that there is at least one artist who references her, or at least the first chapter of “On Photography,” “In Plato’s Cave.” In his two pieces, “Unknown Caves,” Will Rogan overlaid a book’s pages that have images of tribal or prehistoric handmade figures. Perhaps the objects are talismanic stand-ins, but are the pages of photos still photos or shadows of photos?

Similarly ontological, Evan LeLonde employs what he calls a “sheer veil of otherness” in his two photos, both called “Untitled (A Shard of Glass).” The shots are identical except for the lighting and/or Photoshop techniques used with the end result being that one cannot be entirely sure if they are photographs or colored pencil drawings. And to round out this thread of how we come to “know” objects, Erin Shirreff uses association and likeness to title her photograph, “Knife,” for the image appears instead to be a piece of wood that looks a bit like an Exacto blade in its handle. It might cut mustard.

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There is a lot of work here, and to take in the whole show requires time. From the standpoint of how this exhibition is arranged in the space, it is clear a great deal of consideration went into the art selection and installation.

The placement of the McAlpine’s camera so far away from her print adds another dimension to the exhibition, for there are other sculptures in this exhibit (two of Corin Hewitt’s sculptures are in the main room), and videos that stand alone as well as reference photography. Jennifer West’s “Nirvana Alchemy Film” greets visitors in the foyer, but I am thinking more of Erin Shirreff’s “UN” on the outside wall to the bathroom and her “Roden Crater” on the lavatory side of that wall. Both have running times listed but neither seems to be more than a still image. Surely there must be some change, some shift, if you will, so one looks more for any movement rather than at the building or crater. One presumes an intentional subverting of our expectations for the moving image, as well as the frozen moment in time of photography, by concentrating on the monumental presence of both the building (and its purpose) and the geologic feature.

Some changes come very slowly.

With the invention of photography came the nearly instantaneous proclamation that painting would soon be killed off by its imitator. While such histrionics persist for painting, a new chorus has emerged within the photographic world: the proliferation of the medium via digital cameras of all kinds and their software counterparts is destroying photography.

While this observation may not be totally germane to this exhibition, it does point to a lack of imagination—or a fear of competition for eyeballs—on the part of the naysayers. While clichés abound in all art forms, it is quite possible for the less literal-minded practitioners to rise above the surface of appearances or concerns about their market. After all, these concerns have gone unchanged since the onset of the Modern Age, yet we still manage to find a fresh outlook emerge in the work of a steady percentage of artists: I’m going to posit five percent.

What is remarkable about “Terrain Shift,” is that this percentage is considerably higher.

Note:

Corin Hewitt will be giving a talk, “The Studio Pressed Flat: The Metaphysical Interiors of Georgio Di Chirico and Kurt Schwitters Merzbau” at lumber room Saturday, January 26 at 3:00 PM.

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