Photography review: Photographs from the cold and wet

Corey Arnold's depictions of life at sea and Aleksey Kondratyev's ice fishermen contain a sublime shiver

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

Cold and ice were not the first things that I wanted to ponder mid-May, especially not this one, coming after a cold and rainy spring. But Blue Sky Gallery and Charles A. Hartman Fine Art both scheduled “cold and ice” shows before they could have known what we would be facing, so the perception of mockery with a late-arriving spring is probably unintentional. Neither Aleksey Kondratyev’s Ice Fishers (Blue Sky) nor Corey Arnold’s Aleutian Dreams (Charles A. Hartman) indulges springtime escapism. Instead they demand begrudging weather optimism: There’s always someplace colder than here.

Corey Arnold’s photographs are mesmerizing in their figuration of another life, one far more dramatic and dangerous than my own. Arnold spent eight seasons as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea. Though he no longer works in the industry directly, the current body of work was shot in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. Aleutian Dreams returns to the subject of fishing and the sea while also chronicling life in a place with little division between “civilization” and the “wild.” Bald eagles rummage through garbage bins or patriotically adorn flagpoles (Dumpster Diver and Bald Freedom) and foxes roam the streets (Roadside Friend).

Corey Arnold, “Tad and Octopus”, 2017, Archival pigment print/Courtesy Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Arnold’s approach to human subjects has changed in this series. Earlier photographs confirmed stereotypical expectations: the bearded man in waders (Ben and King (2009)) or the sea-hardened, turtlenecked figure in The Irish Skipper, Rossaveal, Ireland (2010). Aleutian Dreams includes no faces. In Rob and Skate, Rob’s face is entirely blocked by the fish, and in Tad and Octopus Tad’s head is covered by his orange hood so that all we see is his apparently gentle cradling of a limp octopus: an awkward pieta for the ocean set. In Pedro Mending, the hood of his outerwear shadows his face so the figure becomes an apparition in yellow against black net. People are named but faceless, subsumed by the enormity of the sea life and gritty necessities of the task at hand.

The experience is beautified and sanitized, expunged of visceral realities such as biting wind or stench of fish. The way dreams should be—all of the nice parts, the adventure without the discomfort: The Deadliest Catch translated from reality television to the art gallery, more beautiful and poignant and without the foul language or acerbic personalities.

*****

Aleksey Kondratyev’s photographs have less apparent drama. All are untitled. Most are single figures in billowing plastic bags against a snowy backdrop. Honestly, my first thought was the parental injunction against putting plastic bags over one’s head. This only confirms my coddled and well-mitttened upbringing. The Ishim River is in Kazakhstan, where it is cold. Not Portland “when is the snow going to melt” cold, but horrifically, brutally cold, up to 40 degrees below Fahrenheit cold. These makeshift plastic shelters are the only protection from these temperatures as the figures bend to the business of ice fishing.

Aleksey Kondratyev, Untitled, 2016, archival pigment print, 24″ x 30″/
image © Aleksey Kondratyev/Courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery

The shelters have a strange geometry, some are human-shaped ovoids while others are more directly reminiscent of their rectangular bag origins. Some appear sturdier than others, a blessing in the form of thicker-ply or even woven plastic. A few are patched with yellow tape. All are ingenious adaptations of the idea of “shelter.”
The figures inside the bags are vague forms hunched over unseen portals to the river below. Far more visible are the necessary tools: a plastic bucket, a hand-cranked drill, a can of Nescafe, a folding chair (at least some nod to comfort?). Particularly curious are the images of two or three fishermen right next to one another, but in their own shelters: a telling depiction of isolation in community.

Kondratyev includes several close-up images through the plastic. These are enigmatic. Condensation and ice mar the undulating plastic surface. Without the context of the shelter images, I would have no idea how to read these smaller works and yet their intimacy and draw is undeniable.

*****

Both Arnold and Kondratyev make photographs dealing with fish and ice, but the real parallel here is the venerable artistic tradition of the sublime. The sublime has many meanings in philosophy, but the one most familiar in art is Edmund Burke’s 18th century definition: the sublime is equal parts awe and terror. The sea has always been a favored subject in the consideration of the sublime, beautiful and dangerous. It was especially popular subject when people were dependent on it for transportation, trade, military protection, even light. Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Mallord William Turner both painted several churning sea images. Arnold’s Dark Sea and Shifting Sea link directly to these predecessors.

Corey Arnold, “Colliding Sea”, 2015,
Archival pigment print/Courtesy Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Kondratyev’s embrace of the sublime is less obvious but offers a fitting commentary for the contemporary world. Ice fishing is a traditional and historic practice on the Kazakh steppe. Plastic bags are a modern invention. The shelters represent a marriage of tradition and convenience: they lend a modicum of control in an unforgiving landscape.

Control, however, is an illusion. A plastic bag doesn’t protect against sub-freezing temperatures. The way we talk about climate change implies that we have some control over nature. We made the mess; we can fix the mess. But nature doesn’t care about us. Weather isn’t benevolent or malevolent. We are always outmatched. Our best efforts and most fervent attention, while urgently necessary, amount to little more than a film of plastic held together with some yellow tape.

Be in awe. Be terrified.

And be glad that it isn’t actually that cold.

NOTES

Corey Arnold’s Aleutian Dreams continues through May 27, 2017, at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, 134 NW Eighth Ave.

Aleksey Kondratyev’s exhibition continues through May 28, 2017, at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW Eighth Ave.

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