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“Stephen Lawson:

The Light of Day—New Work”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Aug. 9

A dozen years ago this summer, a show opened at the National Museum of American Art called “Eadweard Muybridge and Contemporary American Photography.” Most museumgoers probably remember it because of a rather absurd flap over NMAA Director Elizabeth Broun’s decision—later rescinded under intense pressure from artists—to remove a work by Sol LeWitt from the exhibition because of its “degrading” resemblance to a peep-show viewing box.

Largely forgotten is the fact that the exhibition as a whole was terrific. It began with a selection of images by Muybridge, the photographer who in the late 1870s rigged a network of cameras to photograph a horse in motion. Famously, Muybridge wound up proving that all four legs of the running animal leave the ground mid-stride; he later used a similar set up to photograph other forms of animal locomotion, including that of humans. The show traced his influence on a broad range of later photographers, tracking how they approached time and space in their art.

Many of the works chosen for the exhibition were stunning and thought-provoking: Harold Edgerton’s photographs of bullets captured mid-trajectory, Nicholas Nixon’s annual photographs of his wife and her three sisters (taken over a decade and a half), William Christenberry’s sequential images of a deteriorating building in Greensboro, Ala., Sarah Charlesworth’s careful arrangement of newspaper front pages featuring large pictures of a solar eclipse that took place on Feb. 26, 1979.

Stephen Lawson didn’t have any pieces in that show, but he would have fit right in. A Scottish-born sculptor-turned-photographer who now lives in West Virginia, Lawson uses specially crafted cameras to create images in which time appears to flow. Unlike most conventional photographs, which capture one specific moment, Lawson’s images move visibly through time: As the viewer scans from left to right (or right to left or bottom to top), he sees how the artist created a piece minute by minute, hour by hour, or, in some cases, week by week.

Sometimes Lawson’s cameras are rigged with motors that fire repeatedly on their own; sometimes they’re placed on turntables that can be repositioned manually. Some of the resulting images are long and horizontal; others are circular. Sometimes Lawson pivots a camera across a landscape, capturing a vertical strip of space every few minutes. Other times, he creates images of a scene over a much longer period, then pastes the resulting strips together in sequence. Yet other times, Lawson produces a continuous still image that carries the viewer along much as a tracking shot in a movie would. At his most organic, Lawson documents an otherwise ordinary scene with herky-jerky camera motions that lend it a sense of the surreal.

Visually, Lawson’s work is striking. Light of Day (2002-2003), one of a group of new pieces currently on view at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, tracks the perfect arc of the sun as it rises over New Smyrna Beach, Fla. As time ticks away strip by strip, the colors of sky and sun change, slowly but surely, from black to red-yellow to blue. The photograph’s rigid division into vertical bands looks as smart and orderly as a pinstriped suit.

Of the 15 photographs in the Ewing show, a half-dozen use a similar format. Despite their inventiveness, they tend to grow less interesting as the novelty wears off. In Sfumato (2001-2002), taken in Glacier National Park, and Sun on the Strath (1997), taken in Scotland, the segmentation even becomes a distraction. Images such as these seem more gimmicky than revelatory: A succession of blue sky and cloud sliced into equal parts cannot sustain one’s interest indefinitely.

So it’s a good thing that the exhibition also includes a few change-ups. For Air/Water Interface (1998-1999), Lawson moved the camera jerkily as he photographed a stream, creating an intriguingly trippy record of hills, water, and algae that comes off as somewhere between cubism and surrealism. In Cold Moon Rising (1997-2000), Lawson photographed a cow on a hill whose (artificial) undulations are worthy of a Grant Wood landscape or a Chagall painting. And for The Gaudy and the Gaudi (1994-2000)—the most distracting of Lawson’s often-hokey titles—the artist used swooping movement to chronicle a gaggle of tourists near Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia cathedral. The resulting image tilts one of the cathedral’s spires so it’s nearly perpendicular to the ground, a knowing wink to the quirky aesthetics of the building’s architect.

Yet two of Lawson’s most low-key images are among his most satisfying. Both were made while he was serving a residency at Florida’s Atlantic Center for the Arts. For each image, he moved along the ground—presumably in a car—to capture a long, horizontal scene in one continuous shot. Coursing the Cobbles (2002-2003) features a strip of Daytona Beach punctuated by rows of palms and pastel storefronts that Lawson documented over the course of three minutes. The repetitiveness of the scene—the equally spaced trees, the similar buildings, the cars and pedestrians moving in unison—offers a smooth, almost hypnotic visual rhythm. Metal and Muscle (2002-2003) uses the same approach with vehicles parked on a beach—an aesthetic that seems pitch-perfect for documenting a slightly unreal coastal town.

Unfortunately, some of Lawson’s most inspired ideas are visible only in a decade-old catalog on sale at the gallery. These include a number of rotary pieces such as A Circular Drive Around the City of Edinburgh, Scotland (1988), which is made up of sequential images taken during a spin around the city with a camera mounted on the hood of the car. When assembled, the images radiate energetically around the white void denoting the camera’s position. Another brilliant work, Building and Burning the Bonfire (1990), documents the artist’s stick-by-stick construction of a bonfire, captured one degree at a time at four-minute intervals over a nine-and-a-half-hour period. The pile grows until the fire is lit; from that point, the photograph devolves into a riot of flame, which then peters out until it’s a few stray embers in the night.

Looking like the visual correlative of a skipping CD, Building and Burning the Bonfire is an intriguing, resonant image: Its pleasantly sunlit scene of trees on a hillside becomes increasingly unreadable as Lawson builds and lights his pile; a clear view isn’t restored until the fire begins to die. A similar theme is explored in the Ewing show’s Rain and Shine (1997-1998), which chronicles Scotland’s Loch Ness in a daylong series of exposures. The piece begins at 7:10 a.m. and concludes at 7:35 p.m., the darkness of its extremities interrupted by the lazy movements of strangely sagging clouds. It’s impossible not to perceive the artwork’s allegorical suggestion of life and death: darkness to darkness, ashes to ashes, with a dream in between.

The Year of the Drought (2000) takes Lawson’s fascination with the life cycle to its logical conclusion. For just over one full year, Lawson photographed a rural setting at 4:30 p.m. every Friday, panning bit by bit across the landscape as winter turned into spring, then summer, then fall, and then winter again. In front of Lawson’s lens, cows wandered haphazardly into one strip and out of the next, cloudy days bracketed sunny ones, and, due to the almost imperceptibly slow cycles of the solar system, the view at 4:30 gradually turned darker. And yet, in the finished piece, the setting is sufficiently unchanged to be coherent and immediately understandable even to the untutored viewer—it feels instantly familiar, though it’s something no human could have seen before. In Lawson’s hands, the landscape becomes densely packed with both information and poignancy. CP