Steven Foster

at Carol Ehlers, through July 25

Susan Coolen: Birds, Bones, and Feathers

at Lallak + Tom, through July 25

By Fred Camper

Contemporary photographers who work in series challenge the modernist idea of the photograph as an autonomous, self-sufficient object, suggesting instead that no single composition is perfect or unique. In Steven Foster’s and Susan Coolen’s recent serial works, individual photos also play off one another to suggest the complexity of themes, emotions, or ideas so large they cannot be reduced to single images.

Foster, born in Ohio in 1945 and now a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, has been making photographs since childhood. Among the 82 images at Carol Ehlers are 13 from two series of the late 70s and early 80s, 8 from his “Lake Series”–painterly but not especially original photos of Lake Michigan, revealing its many moods–and 5 from his “Steve Lacy Series,” urban images that are a bit more compelling but rather self-consciously rhythmic. The 69 much smaller prints included from his “Studies” (which now number about 700) are more striking: each shows a suggestive subject, often isolated against a white, spare background.

The “Studies” are mounted here in four groups, each with considerable space between the pictures; the arrangements are unique to this exhibit. One soon notices that the pictures–mostly of figures, natural objects, or details from urban life–are mounted to resemble musical notes on a staff. These stark, small images are closer equivalents to musical notes than most photographs, and the musical arrangement encourages one to look at their relationships. At the same time, observing each group is different from listening to music: one cannot “hear” a picture in an instant, and since each photo remains a separate point in space, the group as a whole is never forced into a single rhythm. Moreover one can read these arrangements in any order.

The 14 images in Arch combine the title’s architectural metaphor with the idea of a rising and falling musical theme: 11 form the arch; below its center are 3 more. Most show figures against a white background; the figures increasingly fill the frame near the top, climaxing with a relatively close shot of a woman at the peak. Light seems to be flowing through her, illuminating her dress; this image is in sensual, almost sexy contrast with the smaller figures in silhouette. Foster’s musical and architectural metaphors work with the subject matter in Arch to suggest both a spatial hierarchy of relationships–based on the photographer’s distance from his subjects–and a temporal progression toward and regression from intimacy, or worship.

The Wall of Lamentation is even more emotionally suggestive. Foster dedicates this series of 12 to several departed family members, and the images are intense enough to be haunting both individually and in combination. Many show backlit figures facing away from us, as if standing on the threshold of another world. Also depicted are urban walls, a lone leaf, and a man lying corpselike. The living subjects all seem to be receding, one subject seems dead, and walls obstruct our vision. Only the leaf and a fish underwater seem alive.

Such images have their source in Foster’s childhood. His father died when he was ten, and as he was told of the death by an aunt, he looked out the window at a utility pole. He took up photography almost immediately afterward, in part as a “refuge,” he says; he still sees “a longing aspect” in his work “tied to loss.” Though W. Eugene Smith was an early influence and Foster studied with Minor White, Nathan Lyons, and Aaron Siskind, the uniqueness of his photos comes from the way each simplified image is a focus of contemplation. I wasn’t surprised to see Foster quote a haiku in his exhibit notes: these small rectangles with lots of white matting and empty wall space between them are like brief poems, enigmatic yet suggestive.

Foster also reproduces a well-known Wallace Stevens poem in his notes, taking its title for the 14 images in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which include a bird but are mostly birdless. Like musical notes again, these photos rise and fall regularly–but also, Foster writes, they resemble “a flock of blackbirds.” One image shows a hand tracing curves like brush strokes, echoing lines in the poem describing a bird’s flight: “Marked the edge / Of one of many circles.” Filling another frame is an overexposed image of a face, focused on the eyes; the image’s placement near the center top reinforces the sense that this piece explores inner and outward vision. The strength of Foster’s work is the way he weaves together these two opposite functions of photography: the images in this piece seem metaphors for thoughts and feelings, just as Stevens’s poem interlaces his observations of blackbirds with his own consciousness: “I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know.”

Susan Coolen’s serial photos–inventories of bones, feathers, and bird nests–have a more objective quality. Her images refer not only to the taxonomic collections of museums but also to her lifelong habit of collecting. Born in 1955 in Nova Scotia, she grew up in a small, “very isolated” coastal village, in a family that she says jokes, “We were so poor, we didn’t have an outhouse.” During her childhood she roamed the rocky shore with other kids, “building things out of driftwood, making rafts, swimming in the ocean.” That’s when she began collecting: “You’d go berry picking and find bones or dead animals. And there was always the notion of treasures–the bottle with the message in it, the notion that something magical would wash ashore.” She left the village for art school and a career as a graphic designer in Montreal but later abandoned her business to return to school; she’s currently an MFA student in photography at Columbia College.

Among her 11 works at Lallak + Tom is High Rise, a three-sided wooden tower containing 24 photographs of eight different bird nests; the nests get smaller as the tower goes up. The totemlike arrangement suggests that nests are festish objects to be worshipped; yet, like much of Coolen’s work, the piece is leavened by humor: the title’s reference to a skyscraper redefines each nest as a “floor,” suggesting an ironic contrast between the birds’ humble self-made homes and urbanites’ manufactured offices and residences.

The show’s largest piece, the wall-size “From the Series ‘The Bone Room,'” is actually an excerpt from what Coolen hopes will be “a full-scale room installation–four walls absolutely filled with grids of bones.” This is a grid of 350 photos, each mounted unframed on cardboard, each displaying one bone against a black background, making the images seem substitutes for the objects depicted. Each bone is numbered on its surface, reinforcing the museum reference, but the bones themselves don’t look especially unusual.

In fact they’re all chicken bones, which Coolen has been saving from her meals since she moved here in 1996. She still has all the bones too, each one washed and dried and numbered. The actions reflected in this work, based on personal obsession rather than the requirements of science, give it a performative, autobiographical quality.

With their black backgrounds and often small size, Coolen’s images, like Foster’s, are simplified, seeming to need others to complete them. There’s nothing elegant about any one chicken bone or about the random placement of the photos, but seeing many bones side by side reveals the small differences between them. The work invites the viewer to focus on details that may have no larger place in the scheme of things but that the artist seems to assert are interesting in themselves.

The same can be said of Down, 12 framed photos scattered about on a wall (the tower of High Rise stands amid them). Each shows a single feather set against black; close inspection reveals that four of the images are repeated once but flipped left to right or upside down. Yet the feathers’ fundamental qualities–their neat patterns and smooth edges–are preserved. Coolen shows us that artistic manipulation is even more arbitrary, even less significant, than the forms of nature. If Foster’s series lead the viewer inward, to contemplate our own consciousness, Coolen’s lead outward, back to the physical world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): From “The Wall of Lamentation” by Steven Foster; From “Down” by Susan Coolen; “From the Series ‘The Bone Room'” by Susan Coolen.