Michal Rovner

at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, through November 4

Bob Thall

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through October 14

Six human shadows ascend a hillside we cannot see, the evenly spaced silhouettes climbing into a swirling tan sky–a group reaching for some lofty goal? Yet the sky is indistinguishable from the ground. Only a darker patch at the far right looks like solid turf.

This is Shayara #1, one of nine new Michal Rovner works at Rhona Hoffman that are photographs only in the sense that they began with an image taken through a lens–the lens of a video camera. Using a computer, Rovner then manipulated the video frame and printed out the digitally modified result, in oil on canvas, no less, through a digitally controlled airbrush system. Like much recent art, Rovner’s straddles several categories: photography, printmaking, painting, computer art.

The figures’ near-abstraction and the absence of any recognizable background produce a haunting image. It’s as if some unknown and unknowable journey were occurring on the canvas before us: in our mind’s eye, in the real-world space of the original image, and within the computer that gave it form. The flat surface produced by the computer-controlled airbrush has none of the tiny relief effects or other irregularities common to painting, and viewed up close the image becomes an uninteresting agglomeration of pixels: brown, red, blue, and yellow fuzzy dots against a light tan ground. Seen from the middle distance, however, the mysterious figures once again acquire an illusory depth, hovering in some virtual space between canvas and mind’s eye.

In Shayara #2 a line of four fuzzy figures stands near the top of a more visible, apparently rocky hill. But here the line points downward toward another fuzzy-pixel forest, approaching the bottom of the hill, whose dark outline ends well before the picture’s right border. Together these works suggest that real landscapes are irrelevant in the digital age, that all figures begin and all journeys end in a thicket of tiny image bytes, a forest of noise no more meaningful than the digital ones and zeroes of computer code are to most of us. That they retain some of the haunting mystery of a real-life dream is a testimony to Rovner’s artistry.

Born in Israel in 1957 and now living in New York, Rovner took up photography as a young woman after she and her future husband started a center for photographers in Tel Aviv. Soon she was enlarging and modifying small Polaroids with a copier and in the lab to abstract their forms and magnify the grain; the pixels in many of her current works have the swirling patterns of film emulsion. The “Shayara” series was taken in a desert in Israel; inhabitants of a nearby town were the subjects. Knowing this gives the tan undercoloring an added association of dryness, barrenness.

As critics have suggested, Rov-ner’s work has been shaped by the harshness of Israel’s landscape (many earlier photos were taken in the Dead Sea, her “favorite place on earth”) and the frequent threats to Israel’s existence: Rovner’s childhood was marked by two wars, and her parents’ home was damaged by a Scud missile in the gulf war. In Field strange, squat forms in a two-toned “landscape”–the bottom half of the picture is brown, the upper half blue–seem to grow out of the ground like some weird species of plant. They also suggest human figures–and monumental gravestones. In All That 14 upside-down figures, their arms outstretched, apparently fall through space against a pale lavender field. I immediately thought of a mass suicide leap, which seems a suitable end for these only barely human figures struggling to achieve form out of the near-chaos of pixels. (Appropriately, this image began as a video of people climbing a distant hill–Rovner inverted the image–slowly threading their way across difficult terrain.)

Rovner’s surfaces have been compared to Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral, with their variegated patterns of light on stone. But Monet’s surfaces are alive with depth. The flatness of Rovner’s is appropriate in a way, however: seen from the middle distance, her figures hover in an ambiguous space midway between dream image and actuality, and when this illusion vanishes close up, it makes her figures seem even more like apparitions. Still, I was delighted to find one picture whose surface details are as interesting as its effect from a distance.

Moonlight II, made with a laser printer-like device rather than an airbrush, features a single figure in the shape of a squat doll that’s white rather than dark–an intense light that seems to burn into the surrounding blue gray ground, made up of rectangles that recall gridlike computer-created digital images rather than video’s analog pixels. Of different sizes, these rectangles often overlap, as if Rovner had superimposed images. Nor is the figure solid white: from a distance, splotches and pale gray bands cover some of its surface; from closer up these are black specks; and from very close they’re pin-size dots of red, green, and blue. I was fascinated by the fuzzy boundary between the figure and the ground, where one can see the tiny colored dots combining to make the larger gray and black squares, recalling the transition at water’s edge between different life forms. Something that from afar is a barely emerged human shape up close offers a glimpse of an emerging world of digital imagery. In a catalog essay for Rovner’s show last year at the Art Institute, Steven Henry Madoff describes the “tension between nothing and something” in her work, though for me it’s a more specific tension between various forms of being: is the figure in Moonlight II a person, a dream, or a bunch of rectangles? The work’s fuzzy boundary marks the place where a new form of representation–digital imagery–is emerging from an older form, represented by the tiny dots of the primary colors; the viewer, poised between a figure and its representation, is denied firm ground.

Bob Thall also had a show at the Art Institute recently, but he hasn’t garnered anywhere near the critical attention Rovner has. While Rov-ner’s almost conceptual work fits art-world trends, Thall’s returns photography to its original function, the depiction of things. If for Rovner “nothing is real,” Thall reestablishes the sensual connection between viewer and photograph, and by extension between the viewer and the world. He uses a view camera to document midwestern scenes, capturing the kind of naturalistic detail that’s decidedly untrendy. Viewing his 47 prints at Ehlers Caudill I thought of 19th-century landscape photographers; but Thall’s eye for incongruities, even ironies, in cities and towns places his work firmly in the present.

What first struck me was Thall’s omnivorous love of detail. Taking advantage of the large four-by-five-inch negatives’ sharpness, he sets up compositions that give cracks in the sidewalk the same sensuousness as the human form. Though mostly devoid of figures, which would likely blur in the view camera’s long exposure times, his photos are alive: he uses inanimate objects and empty spaces to evoke human presence all the same.

It’s no accident that Thall often trains his lens on the humbler parts of town; his democratizing vision gives everything equal emphasis. Zanesville, Ohio, 1994 shows a somewhat down-at-the-heels residential street in the late afternoon light. The long shadows that result underline tiny details: bumps in the street, grass growing in sidewalk cracks, an extension cord between a house and a car with its hood up, from which we infer the unseen man working on it. A U.S. 40 sign at left indicates the route of this now-obsolete highway through town, perhaps suggesting why the street seems too wide–a bit of history to go with the suggestions of human drama. Mississippi River at Sabula, Iowa, 1983 shows four boys apparently playing in the wide river; actually they’re diving for clams, and one is about to throw a clam to the shore. Each is in a different pose and faces in a different direction–perhaps a metaphor for viewing Thall’s photos: the boys’ active involvement suggests a call to see things anew, like a child, to attend to every detail. This point is brought home by the contrast between the river’s active surface, roiled by small turbulence patterns, and the neatly manicured street along the right bank, where a plump figure sits passively on a bench, providing a dramatic contrast with the boys.

Thall, 46, is a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up in Rogers Park. He recalls excursions to the Loop in his teens, where his two favorite things were the view from the Prudential Building (then the city’s tallest) and Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Saint-Lazare Station at the Art Institute; he liked its “feeling of excitement.” In college he switched from architecture to photography and was later commissioned to photograph county courthouses throughout the midwest; he then began to photograph other scenes in the towns he visited, making images with multiple points of interest. “If you look at 35-millimeter photographers like Robert Frank there’s one focal point, like a funnel,” Thall told me. “In my kind of photography there really isn’t subject and background–it’s like a map or a tapestry.”

But by no means has Thall surrendered to the mechanics of the camera; rather, his multiple focus allows him to create a kind of poetry of the unexpected. He represents diverse paths as equals, a vision that’s literally represented in one of two prints called Burlington, Iowa, 1977, which precisely balances within the frame the various streets and curving railroad tracks of an intersection, each leading the eye on a different journey. His equalizing eye also elevates the mundane, finding allusiveness in things others might dismiss. One of four pictures of crumbling buildings, South Ewing Avenue, Chicago, 1989, offers a frontal view of a facade with archways and bay windows, but the patterns of discoloration and abrasion in the white paint are even more complex than the not-uninteresting architecture, and since they’re darker, they command more attention. Signs of decay are a natural focus for Thall because they add detail to the architecture.

The equal emphasis Thall gives to disparate or contradictory elements emphasizes the incongruities that dot our landscape. In U.S. Steel Works, South Chicago, 1987 an old home is dwarfed by a giant mill right next it, revealing the balance of power in this former company town. Aurora, Illinois, 1992 centers on a big old barn at night, cultivated fields on the right and a new strip mall on the left. Each plank of the barn is discolored or abraded differently, giving this ramshackle building more variety than all the different storefronts, whose identical peaked roofs could be anywhere. Thall is attracted to sites, he told me, that register “the particularities of a place….One of the things that’s both interesting and horrifying about these new suburbs is there’s nothing that shows any kind of accommodation to region, or a particular site, or history.”

His strangely empty landscapes, which become haunting carriers of human emotion, perhaps have their roots in Thall’s childhood: his father, a professional musician, would sit on the back porch and “paint copies of Edward Hopper paintings as a hobby.” As a result, he says, “I never had any trouble with the idea that a street scene or a facade of a building could be subject matter for art.” I thought of the lone figure under the massive shadow of the el in Chicago, State and Lake Streets, 1981 and of four photos, hung together, in which the faces painted on signs and billboards are the only human images in barren city scenes.

Lately Thall has turned to the suburbs: in several of these photos, a row of low office buildings or condos creeps almost like a growing plant from the edge of a rural scene toward its center. But in Itasca, Illinois, 1993 the process is complete: a sterile forest of office towers surrounds some trees and a pond. Above, a spectacular, towering backlit cloud seemingly out of 19th-century American landscape painting echoes the shape of a tall tree at the center: a gentle little joke on the intrusion of the “sublime” into this most barren of settings.

Even more extreme is the scene in Near O’Hare, Chicago, 1991: office buildings and a rooftop parking lot form a mass of concrete, glass, and metal surfaces whose tones are powerfully mirrored in a slate gray sky, and whose hard textures seem to exclude human presence. At the roof’s far end a lone car is visible, its hatchback raised but no person in sight. As one wonders what narrative could account for its presence, this tiny car–itself a product of the assembly line, just as the buildings are in their way–ironically becomes through its raised hatchback a carrier of emotion, a humanizing sign whose angle disrupts the scene’s stark horizontals and verticals. An active eye, Thall seems to be saying, can find beauty almost anywhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Rovner, Bob Thall.