From its inception, the photographic medium has focused on subject matter and depended on processes that collide the natural and the man-made. The oldest surviving permanent photographic image, View from the Window at Le Gras, taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, depicts a landscape dominated by human settlement--a loft, barn, bake house, and an extended wing of his family's estate obscure the surrounding Burgundian fields. Yet, in terming his process "Heliography" (sun-painting), the photograph's inventor acknowledged what he felt to be nature's impartial laws, rather than subjective human involvement, as the principal agency behind the art of photography. In the course of art's existence, no other medium has blurred the already ambiguous boundaries of nature and culture to quite the same degree.
In Sand · Silk · Snow, the synthesis of natural order with human involvement persists as a primary conceptual concern. However, perhaps more than any perceived ecological exigency or theoretical interest, the most powerful affinity between the works of the three artists on display may be as simple as a shared aesthetic leitmotif that Niépce's reflective medium could never have engendered: a consistent emphasis on the color white. Lending the show a visual consonance, yet strongly individuated in its use by the three artists, the largely unshadowed and pristine white expanses of the works on display challenge our expectations of a time-based medium in their evocations of spaces largely untouched by time's vicissitudes--locations where potential subsumes present activity.
In this vein, the four 28" x 36" unmanipulated chromogenic prints that constitute Lisa M. Robinson's exhibited winterscapes are pervaded by a hushed elegiacism. Culled from the artist's Snowbound series, each of these works documents an environment in which manufactured and organic formations
co-exist in a tenuous harmony situated amid a sea of stark snowdrift. Wound depicts a lone and leaf-bare tree whose bandaged trunk is the only site of the picture's color--a stripe of ice blue and a wedge of beige drape the edges of the dressing's loosest folds. In Sonata, color is once again used to emphasize Robinson's recurrent theme of containment--two parallel and bright yellow ropes, which connect a series of black steel poles, mimic the slumps and swells of the setting's undulant snow-carpeted hills flecked with recent footprints; here, as in each of her other images, the impulses and conditions compelling human presence in these surroundings remains abstruse. This ambiguity is highlighted both in the subject matter and title of Valhalla, an image of signposts whose green edges are absorbed in wind-tousled sheets of ice before the banks of a frenzied Lake Ontario. Named for the banquet hall that Norse mythology promises as an afterworld for its fallen heroes, the title (in this context) simultaneously valorizes and makes evident the insufficiency of human attempts at lasting signification; at once humble and monumental, the image indicates the fragility of human existence in a site of extreme climatic severity.
Where Robinson's intensely detailed images seem anticipatory--providing all the situational clues requisite to imagining the emergence of the underlying landscapes during an imminent spring thaw--Maria Louisa Morando's beachscapes mimic the essentializing nature of remembrance. Although created as a reaction to 9/11, her pigment ink photographs present the obverse of the recent spate of photojournalistic activity impelled by the event; in her own words, "[the artist] no longer wanted "detail,' the constant "clutter' and ceaseless noise that surrounds us all." Though Massimo Vitali's overexposed beach scenes and Hiroshi Sugimoto's tests of the minimalist limits of photographic composition are obvious points of reference, Morando's images feel more forlorn than the festive, teeming vistas that characterize the former artist's work; they eschew the latter's interest in the evocation of geologic time and uncanny optical fidelity for an unapologetically dreamy nostalgia. In her series Maranatha (an Aramaic phrase translatable as "Come, O Lord"), straight-on shots of the sea border on abstractions pared to little more than horizontal striations of greige (sand), off-white (surf), aquamarine (sea), and a color that fuses the three (sky). In these images, the conscientious suppression of detail serves as a constructive limitation, as sensory depletion provokes other faculties to compensate in the reconstruction of recollected experience. In a suite of C-prints developed from images taken in Marina del Rey, CA, titled White, Series I, the Pacific is reduced to a scintillating blue-grey sliver that separates a blaze of sun-bleached sand from an equally glaring sky. Approximating the sensation of first opening one's eyes after being lulled to sleep by the low ostinato of crashing waves, even the surrounding beachgoers register only as the vaguest silhouettes--each element is carefully rendered to be as indistinct as distant memory.
Occupying an even more indeterminate zone between representation and abstraction than that which Morando's works inhabit, the compositions of Chaco Terada merge photographic and calligraphic methods to synthesize depictions of language and nature. In her series Shu, each of the artist's photographs of flowers (ostensibly, the red lilies that impart both color and title to such works as Woman of Red Lily I through Woman of Red Lily VII) is printed on a sheet of transparent white silk that rests behind another diaphanous layer of the fabric acting as a support for calligraphic marks applied in sumi ink. Though accomplished in traditional calligraphy, Terada's brushwork compounds individual elements of specific Chinese and Japanese characters to arrive at a form of gestural abstraction that recalls Motherwell no less than Zhang Shui. Often imbuing little more than a soft wash of underlying color to these images, the flora that the artist photographs prove less prominent than the literal materials of the works' execution. We've come a long way since Niépce, but--if these works are any indication--discovering an initially hidden image slowly resolve itself in materials alien to its subject matter can still provide today's artgoers with a sense of wonder that rivals that of heliography's first admirers.
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