In the popular mind, the process may get a bad rap. It involves a sort of detached automaticity or imposed order that strives to regulate or “normalize” that which is inherently variable. But for many artists, the process is a practice of revelation and deeper understanding. If you don’t believe me, step inside the newly opened Maine Museum of Photographic Arts outpost for “Constructed & Found” (until August 23).
Each of the photographers featured on the walls of the MMPA – Brendan Bullock, Luc Demers, Damir Porobic, John Woodruff and Barbara Goodbody – approaches their work through a unique process. It can be consciously artificial (Woodruff) or deliberately deconstructed (Porobic). Other times, it’s about abstracting light and landscape through movement (Goodbody). Still other times it is simply a matter of drastically reducing one’s attention to a minute detail of what is being encountered (Bullock). And in one case, it is a system designed to express the infinite variability and mystery of natural phenomena (Demers).
In the case of Demers – whose work, for me, is the most impactful in the exhibition – the images represent the confluence of process, the ephemeral and poetry (not necessarily in that order). It was the work that immediately appealed to me, despite the bold, almost baroque effervescence of Woodruff’s fabricated flower images, which are certainly more overtly arresting.
Demers’ allusion to Joseph Albers is, at least superficially, obvious: juxtapositions of color in a square format within a square. However, it is much more than simple combinations of formulas and recombinations of shades that study the effects of color on our perception. Albers incisively undermined the subtlety of the relationships between shade gradations, as well as the deeper impact (emotional, psychological, physical) these gradations had on the human psyche. But Albers used paint to achieve these goals, while Demurs, more poignantly and lyrically, harnesses light and time.
For his “Ambient” series, Demers shoots outdoors. He cuts square windows out of white cardboard panels and lines them up, one behind the other, with space between them, placing them on an axis with the open sky. His camera is installed at one end, framing this succession of windows. Light strikes each of these panels in different ways, temporarily coloring them. Light reaching the back of one panel will reflect that color onto the front of the next. This means that the light inside two panels is always of a slightly different quality and tone than the space between the next two panels.
The serene beauty of these works is not that they represent a record of a specific moment of the day. If so, they wouldn’t be much different, conceptually speaking, from On Kawara’s “Rendezvous” paintings, which he started in 1966 and continued to make until his death in 2014. It was roughly the chronicle of time (as well as diverting attention from art as object).
Demers’ poetry lies in the sense of evanescence from which his works emanate. On Kawara’s canvases, days are set in an identical and repetitive format, so that each one loses its individuality and specificity over time. Demers’ works – with their soft lines and gradations of tones – capture the light and moods of one moment before they invariably change again in the next millisecond. We literally look at a moment that has passed, but we can feel its warmth or its coolness, its softness or its brightness.
And we can do this while simultaneously intuiting the persistent continuum of time. Demers also deliberately searches for specific shades and qualities of light, activating his trigger only at the precise moment when he perceives the particular pink or lavender or yellow he has been waiting for. They are worth the whole show.
Porobic’s work deals with how our mind constructs and stores an image, as well as how the brain reconstructs it as memory. Her process is also an examination of her own identity as a Bosnian American. He photographs common objects and phenomena that he sees outside his studio: the sky, the surface of water, a truck, an Adirondack chair. Then he takes this digitized image and combines it with his master engraving skills.
The artist can isolate certain sections, colors and/or pixels in the digital recording and then print only those. He can then isolate another area and/or color and feed the previously produced partial image into the printer so that the second programmed section prints over the original photo. Porobic can do this about 40 times until the image is complete. But it’s complete in a whole new way, because in the printing process lines, colors, and sections don’t conform perfectly to their original margins. It is as if the screen-printed colors do not meet exactly along the originally determined color areas of the original artwork from which it is reproduced.
The resulting photographs are blurry and indistinct, just like our identities and memories. Both, like Porobic’s images, are layered with initial impressions filtered through imprecise memory, intermediate experience, and retrospective understanding. The basic image remains, but its supposedly indisputable reality at the time of its appearance is fragile at best and probably no longer relevant in the same way.
On another level, these works challenge a generally unchallenged assumption of traditional photography as a medium that captures the reality of a moment, freezing it in time in perpetuity. But what, in truth, can we really cling to forever?
Woodruff, on the other hand, throws reality to the wind. Her process in this latest series involves taking hundreds of photographs of flowers, printing them onto paper and cutting them out by hand, then arranging them in glued groupings on several sheets of glass separated by a few centimeters from each other. . It also forms the light between the layers to illuminate the flowers in different ways. Finally, his camera is positioned directly above the layered composition so that the resulting single image is actually that of a view through the layers.
It then becomes impossible to view the flat image and determine which flowers are at what depth, or whether the floral images are actually contiguous with others on the same layer or across multiple layers. These images are pure artifice, but also mind-blowing in a way that blurs our perceptual abilities. Our brain and our eyes cannot discern exactly what we are looking at, what is in the foreground and what is in the background.
Woodruff’s previous series, where he applied the same process to photos of stars in the night sky, in moonlight or sunlight, remain more interesting to me, mainly because they had the added confusion perceptual to appear to actually emanate from points of light, as if lit by small LED bulbs behind the print. It’s not that these aren’t interesting; they are. And they have a chaotic lushness that captures flowers at their ripest moment – bright, fully open, and in your face – which inevitably also involves decay and death, indicating the impermanence of things. We can see them both fertile and funereal.
Like all of the aforementioned artists – in fact, like the photographic medium itself – Bullock’s work is about what is past. For many years, as he went on missions with his camera to capture specific events or stories, he carved out space to literally focus on often overlooked details. I say literally because what appear as abstract compositions is something real but carefully observed.
As he says of a job he was filming (an abandoned boathouse in Camden), “It was like at noon on Tuesday 1990 everyone had gone out to lunch and never came back.” That experience is expressed here with a photo which is a hyper close-up detail of the inside of a drawer in the office in the boathouse, where mice had chewed and scattered the bristles of a brush that someone had put inside.
At first glance, the work, “Draftsman’s Brush Bristles #2,” looks like a black-and-white line drawing by Miró, or perhaps the same artist’s pencil doodles on gray paper. Our closeness to the dusty, hair-strewn drawer becomes completely abstract – again, a bit like memory – and captures an expired moment. The same thing happens with pictures scratched on a wall in Tanzania, patterns on the tar paper of a roof of a building in Cleveland, etc.
Last but not least are two large format works by Barbara Goodbody, a beloved Portland photographer who has been experimenting with the photographic medium since 1986, when she attended the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport. (Now called Maine Media Workshops + College, there is currently an exhibition curated by Bruce Brown at Cove Street Arts, through July 30, which features the work of various alumni.)
For both of these images, Goodbody used a common plastic camera as she photographed sunrises in the western deserts while she herself was on the move. You can’t get much more transient than that. 2009’s “Sunrise I” is a stunner, appearing almost like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of sunlight shining through a break between two mesas. Sunlight appears as a blinding, almost nuclear explosion in the top middle of the image, with a single hot beam of light dividing the two landmasses.
There is tremendous power in this image, which encapsulates a natural phenomenon and in doing so, conveys its fieriness more effectively than if it had stood still and clicked the camera. We would not have perceived the fact that heat and light travel and burn. We also understand that, like a flash, we see something that happened – no pun intended – in a flash.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]