“New Photo Expression”
New Photo Expression 2011, at Blutstein Brondino Fine Art, surveys contemporary photography in Milwaukee. Eight established artists, working in various photographic media, are showing in this gallery’s first exhibit of living regional artists.
The show runs the gamut of new work on the romantic end of the contemporary art spectrum. As curator Lawrence D’Attilio puts it, “the dynamic of forging new photographic work with renewed expressionist vigor is the central theme.” The images lean toward personal expression rather than documentary truth. They range in apparent veracity from subtly enhanced landscapes to entirely constructed tableaux.
Upon entering the gallery, a choice confronts the viewer: Valerie Christell’s dark landscapes of decay or D’Attilio’s sunny photomontages? D’Attilio has skillfully combined truth and fiction to represent vivid, surreal spaces that feel possible, like the enhanced reality of the theater. D’Attilio’s radiant color transports both urban decay and the viewer into an alternate universe, where ordinary people and things are glowing and heroic. His work can be humorous, and the descriptions add to the fun: “Spigots of real experience are turned low impeded by pervasive virtual entertainment. Those who choose escape may encounter the universe’s spiritual gift of golden light.” The social commentary is couched in sweetness and good humor, an optimistic vision of a future full of possibilities.
Christell’s images, constructed from photographic source materials, are darkly layered visually and emotionally. Partially decomposed figures are integrated into a richly textured ground, blending elements of nature with personal reflections on life and inevitable decay. Watcher of Remains stands alone beside her other images; it depicts a black crow perched before a dark oven, its historic purpose a black mark on humanity, scumbled and broken like an etching left too long in an acid bath. The bird navigates the liminal space between two dark worlds, the classic arch of the oven serving as gateway into horror leading from an earthly hell. Although devoid of color, her photographs are richly textured and visually compelling. Christell shows them without glass to minimize the barrier between the viewer and the artist’s dark universe.
William Zuback’s Gestation represents the other side of the life and death spectrum. Zuback’s miniature images in series scatter across a small dividing wall. The photographs use vending-machine babies encased in plastic bubbles as a starting point. They are eerily suspended, like embryos in utero. Lit in orange, green, blue, or white, the “babies” float above unrelated shadows in watery and amorphous backgrounds. The effect is both womblike and surreal. Some pictures evoke a sterile hospital operating room; others resemble a constellation of planets floating in deep space, connecting micro and macro, playfully exploring the mysteries of life using cheap throw-away toys from contemporary consumer culture.
The number of pieces exhibited exceeds the capacity of the gallery, and a few works are cramped into an almost salon-style presentation. Some works need more space than they’re given or a more cohesive arrangement within the limited space. In showing just just one image each from two of Eddee Daniel’s series and three of another, the gallery has blurred the focus Daniel has achieved in larger exhibitions. Still, it’s interesting to see work from three different series side by side. He generally concentrates on the the incongruities and inadvertent beauty of the urban landscape at the intersection of nature and contemporary society.
Three triptychs from Daniel’s Icon Series are hung vertically, and they work well as a group. Each composition is segmented into three views. Reading from top to bottom, the natural images are progressively overwhelmed by man-made structures. Despite his reverence for nature, Daniel seems equally fascinated by natural forms and man-made structural overlays. His photographs capture the tension and dissonance where the two converge.
The show under-represents Dara Larsen. Her three large prints, each a grid of separate images, are crowded into a narrow cubicle. In one of the frames, photographs of the ancient temple at Mitla in Oaxaca, Mexico, anchor her imagery. She overlaid complex geometric abstractions on the photos, to form a theme and variations on ancient patterns. I wanted to experience at least one of the images at a scale large enough to be surrounded by the constructed space, to feel immersed in the intricate abstraction, but the scale and repetition keep the viewer from entering. Larsen also practices book arts; the fascinating composite images in this exhibit are like the disassembled pages of a book. The arrays of images give the viewer the task of sequencing, comparing similarities and differences, and finding how each connects to the others. Not only has she broken apart the motifs, but also whatever narrative that may have connected them. One is left with too much and not enough information or, perhaps, a cryptic puzzle that would yield to time and repeated viewing.
William Mueller’s series range from whimsically humorous to darkly playful. His “reverse gold fusion” images are displayed on small end walls, while his urban entomology specimens cluster together beside James Seder’s floral images. The gold pieces are dark in tone and the gallery lighting is a little inadequate, but the artist has attached a looking glass to a chain, inviting the viewer to a more intimate experience of his strange, private universe. The images are composites of photographic fragments reminiscent of early surrealist work, but the size and quality of the prints refers further back in history. Something charming and nostalgic lies in their small scale and warm metallic tones. In contrast, his Urban Entomology series is light and colorful, almost cartoon-like. In a virtuosic celebration of Photoshop, Mueller has morphed the urban landscape into graceful and anatomically possible insects hatched from guard rails, hydrants and other ordinary materials.
James Seder’s floral collages look back into the history of painting even as they reflect personal memories. In the long tradition of vanitas floral painting, he captures a sumptuous ripeness just on the brink of decay as he pays tribute to his mother’s humor, darkness and love of flowers. Like paintings of tables heaped with produce and dead animals, there is too much. These painterly photographs, although beautiful, walk the fine line between feasting and gluttony, plenty and putrefaction.
Overall, the show is as much about the curator as the artists. It reflects D’Attilio’s romantic and optimistic vision of the contemporary world and his preference for personal expression. As a sampler platter, New Photo Expression is a little heavy on the dessert, but it offers a feast for the eyes and a few choice morsels of food for thought.
Blutstein Brondino Fine Art is located in the Marshall Building in Milwaukee’s Third Ward at 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 212, Milwaukee, WI 53202. The exhibit runs through Nov. 12. The gallery is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of each week from 11 a.m. to 4 pm. and by appointment. A downloadable PDF catalog is available at the gallery’s website.