The most universal experience of the COVID pandemic has been one of waiting: waiting for the chance to touch each other again, for test results to ease or affirm our fear, for restaurants to reopen and life to resume, a vaccine, to be all over. We wait inside our homes looking out our windows at the landscape, or through the “window” of a computer screen on endless Zoom calls looking at the landscapes of other people’s lives.
A joint exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art – “Tory Fair: Portable Window” and “Parallax/Geography” (until February 28) – probes the fiery and emotional vagaries of this sense of stasis through the prism of photography, offering new takes on the landscape seen through the camera frame. Don’t expect traditional images. The artists use a panoply of analog and experimental photographic techniques and aesthetic approaches to evoke something more interior, and sometimes transcendent, than our imposed voyeurism of today.
Boston-area artist Tory Fair was inspired by the work of ecofeminist artist Mary Miss, whose often interactive installations and sculptures sought to connect viewers to the landscape so they could reclaim it. or contemplate how it figured in their lives. Fair reinvented Miss’s 1968 “portable window” into a huge plywood wheel resembling a large spool of cable that could be wound across neighborhoods and landscapes. A camera attached to one flange of the reel captures images through a window cut into the other flange on the opposite side of the center barrel.
The resulting videos and stills frame ever-changing views. The Rolling Device (also exhibited here as a sculpture) literally turns the world upside down and does it sideways. It’s an apt metaphor for a year that has seen the constant spin of “truth” and the movement to overturn our stubbornly uncompromising socio-political status quo. A miniature portable window on a track allows viewers to create their own upside-down visual recording of Congress Street with their phones.
In the second, larger exhibition, the artists employ techniques that are complex and innovative and, unfortunately, not explained on the wall plaques (although the artists’ statements are displayed). This means that the works can be indecipherable, which can panic some viewers while intriguing others. The mention on the plates of the type of photo paper used in the images of Amanda Marchand, for example, will simply confuse most people. This only makes sense to students and photography professionals who understand that each type of paper has a specific saturation (purity and saturation of color) that Marchand exploits by allowing or limiting its access to light.
Of course, these works can be appreciated simply for their aesthetics and the emotional reactions they elicit. A fine example are four “Blanks” by artist Tad Beck from Vinalhaven. There is something dreamy and ethereal about these photographs that we can guess on a visceral level without knowing anything about how they are made. Yet understanding Beck’s process, at least for me, greatly deepens the lyricism of (and my admiration for) these works.
Beck often uses re-photography to push the limits of the camera, which traditionally freezes only a single moment in time. For these, he explained in an email: “The series is called ‘Blanks’, because the original subject is a piece of blank glossy photo paper. I point the camera at the blank paper and capture the reflections on it. I then make a print of that photograph and point the camera at it, resulting in highlights layered on top of the highlights. I repeat these steps until a new abstract space is created in the photograph. Each piece is made in a specific space and in one day. Beck lays glass over the photo paper to increase the highlights and sometimes sprays white paint over it to create even more layers.
Windows and even buildings can be discerned in some “Blanks”. But they mostly appear as hazy, enigmatic images in the process of coming into focus. Beck is inspired by the experimental composer Alvin Lucier, whose sound works seek to capture the resonance of a space. Knowing all this, and the technique deployed by Beck, suddenly turn out to be sublime meditations on light and passing time. And yes, they capture the fleeting atmospheric feel of the room that a conventional photo simply couldn’t.
Sage Lewis’ quasi-sculptural pieces also aim for something beyond mere representation. Each brings together images taken from different landscapes. A single work will juxtapose images of the Mojave Desert, Ubuhebe Crater and the Amargosa Range in Death Valley, and Chryse Planitia, an equatorial mountain range on Mars. (These are from reels of gelatin silver prints taken in the 1970s by Viking Landers.) Essentially, Lewis, who splits his time between Vermont and New York, visually exploits the geological synchronies between Earth and other planets.
The otherworldly strangeness of these inhospitable terrains creates a disorientation that Lewis amplifies by mounting the horizontal images on a board and leaning them vertically against the wall. The world is literally turned upside down. Yet, on another level, the similarities between Earth and Martian topography convey the interconnectedness of all things and all worlds.
My favorite Elizabeth Atterbury photos use strips of corrugated cardboard to evoke MC Escher compositions that make us wonder what rises to the surface and what recedes from the picture plane. The cardboard forms complex networks and shadows, which she likens to the evolution and transformation of language (both visual and verbal). The Portland artist is first and foremost a sculptor, and that sense is palpable here, as well as in “Black Beach,” a shot of what looks like sculpted pieces of black moss laid out in sand.
And then there is the New York artist Marchand. “Timeline (Dusk)” and “Timeline (Sunset)” look nothing like strips of paint samples from a hardware store, but in inflated proportions. Fascinatingly, however, they actually chart the ascent and descent of sunlight, which she records by exposing sections of photo paper to that light intermittently every few minutes, essentially “burning” the particular gradations of light in the paper. Inspired by literature, she does the same in “Event Horizon (Violet)”, this time using a book to gradually block the paper’s exposure to light diagonally across the image. Digital photography is also involved, but in the absence of an explanation, I’m not sure where it comes in.
Photography has clearly come a long way since Louis Daguerre. But, like him, these artists are pioneers of the medium whose exciting work is always revolutionary.
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]
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