Leora Laor

at Daiter Contemporary

Joel-Peter Witkin

at Catherine Edelman

By taking only minor liberties with the Hebrew, it’s possible to render the name of Israeli artist Leora Laor in English as “my light, to the light.” This is not only very cool from the perspective of those of us whose names don’t mean anything interesting, it’s also appropriate. Because the Laor pictures now on view at Daiter Contemporary draw their uncanny power–as well as their powerful uncanniness–from an intense negotiation between the world’s light and Laor’s own.

Obviously, all photographs depend on such a negotiation to some degree, the camera itself being the traditional site where the bargain is made. But Laor is able to bring extraordinary influence to bear on the process in her recent series, “Images of Light,” thanks to digital technology. The 53-year-old artist extracted individual frames from video of everyday scenes in a sunny Jerusalem park, blew them up, and suffused them with the electronic equivalent of colored washes. These washes interact with natural light and the inherent graininess of video to transform the photos’ subject matter, sometimes radically.

And sometimes not. The pictures in “Images of Light” seem to fall into three categories of transformation. In category one pictures, the wash is used purely to heighten a nominally natural color scheme, providing greener greens for the grass, wheatier ochers for dry ground, and the occasional accent of a very red sweater. This approach yields the most conventionally attractive, even bucolic, scenes of people at play.

Then there are the pieces in which the entire image is tinted a very pale yellow or green. Figures are reduced to silhouettes: men in short sleeves, women wearing snoods and long skirts in the Orthodox manner, the loose toddler. Caught against a lurid expanse of sky or sward, they convey the same odd gravity you see in the statuelike pleasure seekers in Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, none of whom seems to be having fun despite the pastoral surroundings. The anemic tones of these pictures suggest the burden of leisure, the melancholy attempt to have a good time on your day off, with your family, on public grounds. In fact they suggest work, alluding to Jean-Francois Millet paintings such as Washerwomen, in which the subjects are twilit from behind as they prepare to pound clothes beside a river.

With the third category Laor’s imagery moves precipitously from the ironic to the iconic, a leap achieved entirely through a change of palette. Here the digital washes are all saturated color, dense reds, yellows, and oranges. In Image of Light #3, a man and woman walk along a black ridge under a black sky, the deep yellow glow that illuminates them suggesting a biblical scene by Rembrandt. They could be Sarai and Abram walking to Egypt, Adam and Eve leaving Eden. In Image of Light #2, a couple appear to be gathering possessions while their son stands by; the vista behind them is lavalike with yellow and orange. Again I think of Genesis: Lot and his wife abandoning Sodom.

Of course, I know these thoughts have a good deal to do with my awareness that Laor took the photos in Jerusalem. But they have more to do with something timeless and apocalyptic in the images themselves. It doesn’t matter that the woman on the black ridge is wearing a light knee-length skirt and a cardigan sweater or that the man carries what may be a big plastic bag. Laor’s light takes them out of chronology altogether, placing them in what Allen Ginsberg called the “total animal soup of time.” They are here and not here, early and late, and the physical setting only adds to the mystique–since, after all, where does time behave more like soup than in Jerusalem?

Joel-Peter Witkin occasionally modifies his photos too–painting on them, marking or collaging them. But his art has always relied for its effect on the recognition that his grotesque subjects–a dead dog with vegetables spilling cornucopia-style out of a gaping hole in its abdomen, for instance–are essentially real. When he gives them the patina of a daguerreotype, it only helps enforce the sense of their authenticity.

The recent works on display at Catherine Edelman are a little mild compared to those that made Witkin’s reputation. But the content is still extreme: amputees are posed like Greek gods, a dead woman’s head is used as a flower vase, a severed leg sits atop a weather vane, and so on. What’s interesting is that these images don’t, in fact, shock. Technology has stolen Witkin’s edge: it no longer matters that he uses real subjects because we know that the same effects can be achieved with Photoshop. The image isn’t a complete lie, but it could be, and so we don’t believe it. We believe Laor’s frankly manipulated images instead. Call it shock devaluation.

Leora Laor

When: Through 10/29: Wed-Sat 11-6

Where: Daiter Contemporary, 311 W. Superior, #408

Price: Free

Info: 312-787-3350

Joel-Peter Witkin

When: Through 10/29: Tue-Sat 10-5:30

Where: Catherine Edelman, 300 W. Superior

Price: Free

Info: 312-266-2350

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/couretsy of Daiter Contemporary.