National Exposure Photography Exhibition

at ARC Gallery, through July 1

Though there are 72 works by 27 photographers from around the United States now on view at ARC Gallery’s third “National Exposure” show, the exhibit has a suprising cohesiveness, especially considering the approach taken by guest juror Sylvia Wolf. A photography curator at the Art Institute, she says she was looking mainly for “consistency of vision” in each photographer, and the result is a show of generally high quality. But it’s also an engaging snapshot of the way photographers deal with current issues in the art world, questioning the concept of individual identity and the relationship between humankind and nature.

Each of Yasha Persson’s three photos shows a man in a dark suit, penis hanging out, but in each he seems to have been assembled out of several different people. The head in He’s Good With Them is that of a small boy; in Big Feet the head is adult but tiny, and the feet are unusually large. All three are covered with gray areas–splotches, blots, and what appears to be the residue of masking tape–recalling the photo collages of the Starn twins. And as in their work, identity is at issue: like many other recent artists, Persson seems to doubt the existence of a coherent, unified self. The works are an odd mixture of the near-surreal and the almost elegant; their messy surfaces have an expressive, almost smooth consistency that the figures strikingly lack. Carol Lubin’s view of identity, revealed in a single, untitled image, is more frightening. A nude woman lies in a fetal position, and down her back runs a zipper, its tab near her neck, suggesting that she can be readily opened up. Like Kiki Smith’s life-size sculptures of diseased bodies, Lubin’s haunting, horror-movie image reveals a self that’s easy to take apart.

Diana E. Rosen’s Lisa provides an apparent contrast. An attractive young woman in a bikini stands calf-deep in blue water, facing the camera directly, even proudly, dominating the blurry landscape in the distance. But hung just to the right of it is Rosen’s Lisa and Stephen, and it can’t help but modify one’s view of Lisa. Once again the woman faces the camera, but here her look is more tentative. Her arms are wrapped around a man who stands with his back to us–taller than she is, plumper, older, with the beginning of a bald spot. In a way, identity seems more fragile in this pair of documentary photos than in the more synthetic, manipulated work of Persson and Lubin. The joint photo redefines Lisa by placing her in a different context, one in which she seems more dependent–contradicting her apparent strength in the first photo.

Jan C. Watten’s “Aspects of Identity” series defines the self not through relationships with other people but through objects. For this series, which she’s been working on since 1990, Watten asks each subject to bring something important to him or her to the studio; she photographs each person alone, then the object with the person holding it, and mounts the two photos side by side on white mat board, the person on the left, the object on the right. In Aspects of Identity: Myles we see the rounded, crew-cut head of a boy of 14 alongside the football in his hands; Mrs. B shows an older woman with an elaborate hairdo and a floral dress, while at right is an antique frame with a photo of a younger woman in an even more elaborate getup, the frame’s patterns echoing the patterns of Mrs. B’s dress visible behind it. I guessed that this was the young Mrs. B, but the frame is actually one of many antiques she collects; the photographer speculates, however, that Mrs. B sees herself in the younger woman. Watten’s imagery is unmanipulated and not particularly “aesthetic”–her compositions are direct, frontal. Yet her straightforward approach enhances the link between each person and his or her chosen object. By shooting the objects from the same head-on angle she uses for the portraits and juxtaposing the shots, she gives the objects and the faces equal weight: the viewer, his gaze shifting back and forth, feels he can almost see Myles in the football.

These concerns about identity are a sign, perhaps, that our culture is growing more and more narcissistic. Artists increasingly focus on the self–their own or their subject’s–rather than society or nature. But focusing on one’s own image often leaves the narcissist feeling empty: his inability to focus on others leads him to doubt himself as well. Suzanne Ragan Lentz describes such a process effectively, even a bit humorously, in two large self-portraits, part of a bigger project in which, she says, “I was trying to turn myself into a paper doll.”

In Positively Me Lentz arranges 63 color snapshots of herself on a large, framed piece of plywood painted white. In each of them except one she stands in the corner of a room dressed in a different outfit, generally waving to or otherwise posing for the camera. In most, the walls behind her hold photos of herself in various costumes, and in some of the photos in the grid we see hanging colored strings from a related project. I prefer this piece to art star Cindy Sherman’s slick photos of herself in different disguises: Lentz never pretends to be someone else, and by never disguising herself, she puts herself on the line more. Her work’s homemade look–the snapshots are attached to the plywood crudely, with masking tape on the rear, and are not perfectly aligned–suggests the personal obsessiveness behind these endless self-portraits. All we get is Lentz and more Lentz, which seems to lead naturally to the second piece, Negatively Me, another large grid of similar snapshots but with Lentz cut out. She’s still visible in the small portraits on the walls, but the center of the image is a void. When the whole world has become the self, the only variation one can introduce is self-negation.

What to do about this dead end? Other photographers here invite us for a walk outdoors. Most expansive are two photos of large vistas by Pamela Cobb. Open Wall, Cliffs of Moher shows a walkway along the edge of cliffs high above the sea; an old stone fence rims the walkway. This view seems as open as Lentz’s grids are self-enclosed, the edge of the cliffs making a forceful irregular line. But this view too is circumscribed by the human presence: the fence and walkway start to seem borders or outlines intended to contain the unruly land, and the composition as a whole focuses the attention on distant human figures on the walkway.

Frank Yamrus’s homoerotic photos suggest human self-enclosure even more strongly. All four show nude men sitting or lying on the ground, posed and photographed to resemble rock formations. Their asymmetrical shapes–the top of a head or a shoulder thrust toward the viewer–communicate a genuine phallic force. But Yamrus’s view of nature suggests a double solipsism: not only is nature at its most interesting for him when it’s dominated by a nude man, but the four different men he places there all look alike because he contorts them to match his own fantasy image.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this–with the work of Persson or Lentz or Yamrus. They’re doing what artists have typically done to create good art, expressing their own vision. But they’ve chosen arenas that suggest vision is private, excluding others, excluding the land. One can admire, even identify with their art and remain troubled by their point of view.

Another group of photographers here attempts to come to terms with our current attitudes toward nature. Jamie Pennington’s photos, for example, offer “a slightly cynical look,” in his words. Hung Up Spool shows a giant industrial spool stuck on the lip of a small dam; behind it is an arched bridge, and the rest of the scene is forest and river. The spool looks humorously out of place at first, an item from some industrial dump alone in the wild. But the way its curves are echoed by the bridge and the arc of water coursing over the dam suggests a landscape dominated by human-made objects–a scene more tamed than it looks. The focus of Pennington’s Sunflower, Overpass is a giant sunflower in an urban garden; but even nature’s largest, most flamboyant sprouting is dwarfed by the overpasses above and behind it, creating an almost picture-perfect frame.

Mark Klein’s view of nature is at once more humorous and more bleak than Pennington’s. Meteor Crater, Az. doesn’t show this awesome geological feature itself–a deep, mile-wide meteor crater, part of whose attraction is that one can walk around its lip. Instead the shot is of a table, bare except for a napkin dispenser, in the corner of a tourist cafe. Behind the table is a photo of a moon-walking astronaut, implying that, for many people, images of the spectacular have replaced the actual experience of it–even when it’s right outside. Klein’s implied narrative is of the tourist who never journeys outside, never leaves the hotel room.

As many of these photographers see it, our experience of nature has in a way become as solipsistic as Lentz’s grid of self-portraits: we’ve turned nature into a reflection of ourselves, or we can’t see it at all. Four photos by Thomas Tulis from his “Construction of Suburbia” series offer a chilling record of that transformation. Each is a view of a subdivision under construction, taken at twilight or at night using exposures as long as 10 or 20 minutes. During that time, Tulis manipulated a portable spotlight, shining it on areas he wished to highlight. The resulting photos look like miniature dioramas or carefully lit movie sets; even the disorganized mounds of earth and debris in the foreground seem, under Tulis’s spot, perfectly in place. The light always looks artificial, partly because nighttime exposures often magnify ambient light, blotting out night’s darkness. Here one of Tulis’s skies is a seductive but sickly purple.

The outdoor photos in this exhibit forcefully express the utter lack of balance in our world. Everywhere there’s a kind of craven inability to see things or draw a relationship between them. Tourists see only the photos in cafes; suburbia blots out moon and stars; people use objects to express their identities. But a few photographers here do seem to see the relationships between things, rather than transforming all into a unitary, solipsistic vision. Most successful is Robin Radin, whose three powerful portraits place their subjects in familiar surroundings yet don’t reduce the surroundings to an extension of the subject.

Albert Pinckney shows a man in profile looking at a globe, about the same size as his head, with genuine curiosity. On a table in the foreground are a box of raisins, a pack of cigarettes, and a document called “Nurse’s House Call,” revealing that Pinckney has been receiving a nurse’s visits. Another photographer might emphasize the subject’s illness, but Radin depicts him looking beyond himself, at a map of the world. The old woman in Afternoon Before Ramadan clad in traditional Middle Eastern garments seems withdrawn, lost in thought; but the almost chiaroscuro lighting draws attention away from her emotions by recalling great European portrait painting, giving her a dignity beyond her individual personality. And the elderly man in Graham Teller sits surrounded by his things, various works of art, but instead of posing with one of them he looks out a window, the light illuminating his face–a face filled with doubt, perhaps about the years ahead. Still, he stares out of the window, out of himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jan C. Watten.