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“Anderson & Low:

Gymnasts—Athletes”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to June 21

“Henry Horenstein: Aquatics”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to June 21

Which project seems likelier to produce more compelling art: a high-concept, long-term collaboration with beautifully toned athletes, or a photographer taking pictures through the glass at the zoo? In this particular contest, the critters wipe the floor with the stud muffins.

Not that the work of photographic partners Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low is a total waste of time. The artists, who have worked together since 1990, specialize in capturing the human form. Their exhibition at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery combines images from two book-length series, Gymnasts, featuring members of the Danish national gymnastics team, and Athletes, which documents world-class athletic competitors from a variety of nations.

Gymnasts is the more ambitious of the two, largely because it approaches its subjects thematically, grouping them around the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The “Earth” images are the least groundbreaking of the bunch—lots of nicely oiled bodies stacked on top of one another and set against dark backgrounds—and the “Fire” pieces don’t seem as adventurous as one might expect, given that they depict people flying through flames.

More interesting are “Water” and “Air.” In the former, Anderson & Low posed their subjects underwater to achieve positions that would have been impossible on dry land: one man “holding up” another with just his fingertips; another pair doing a slow-motion pas de deux. Think of Barbara Morgan’s classic photographs of dance great Martha Graham—the intense concentration of the subject, the fluid movement frozen for a moment, the indistinct background that puts all focus on the figure—but with subjects who are male, submerged, and naked.

“Air,” for its part, uses (presumably) trampolines and diving boards to send the photographers’ well-muscled collaborators flying into decontextualized space, save for the occasional wispy cloud. Here the gymnasts really let go, making upside-down free-falls and Blue Angels-esque overflights. The images are striking in their directness, convincingly conveying—in more than one sense—the naked power of the athlete.

Clearly, Anderson & Low are on to something with the nudity: The largely clothed subjects of Athletes inspire much less interest. The crisp black-and-white images of the series are too often sports-coverage clichés, from blurred action shots of bicyclists to portraits of steely-eyed boxers to candids of athletes midpractice. Only a few images offer something more substantial: In Michael Klim, Swimmer, Australia (1999), Klim stands on the bottom of a filled pool just as casually as if he were stationed on the sidewalk. And with Bisse #1 (2001/2002), Anderson & Low took a page from photographer Neal Slavin, organizing members of an athletic team by height to produce a subtly pyramidal composition.

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But even at its best, Anderson & Low’s imagery isn’t exactly new: Some of the shots from “Air” crib shamelessly from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia, which was commissioned by Adolf Hitler’s government to document the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. This connection isn’t necessarily surprising: Riefenstahl’s film displays nothing so much as admiration for the perfect human form.

It would be silly to call Anderson & Low Nazi sympathizers, but their adoption of Riefenstahl’s style to express their own admiration for the male nude is troubling nonetheless. Perhaps they’re reappropriating Riefenstahl’s aesthetics for a more enlightened generation—or perhaps they’re mocking Nazism by using their photographs’ obvious homoeroticism to undercut the party’s ideology. Or maybe they’re making a comment about the spectacle that is modern sports.

In any case, what doesn’t track is that Anderson & Low’s work doesn’t display a lot of irony. Their tone is as superserious as that of the competitors they chronicle, making their subjects as unapproachable, in their own way, as centerfolds. The viewer, left behind in the real world, is able only to look and to covet. Despite their noble aspirations, Anderson & Low have given us little more than medal-worthy pinups.

Henry Horenstein has a far more modest approach. A professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Horenstein has produced some powerful work—including a strikingly composed series of horse-racing images from the ’80s and ’90s—but his photographs also display enough whimsy to appeal to children. According to his biography, Horenstein has produced 30 children’s books. He has also done extensive work photographing dogs.

Horenstein visits zoos and aquariums to photograph animals through the glass, but his images are light-years beyond ordinary snapshots. He takes full advantage of the odd lighting conditions he’s presented with and prints in grainy black and white; the resulting images look as if they had been taken a century ago.

Some of Horenstein’s works are essentially portraits. His Seahorse, Hippocampus erectus is a vague but recognizable black form against a murky, backlit void, its indistinct tail effectively suggesting flickering motion. Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus presents the sea mammal in a jarring, extremely foreshortened pose. In Crystal Jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, we see a hemispherical halo trailing long white tendrils that, viewed against the enigmatic gray background, suggest a pinstriped suit. And Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp, Lysmata amboinensis is a head-and-thorax shot that looks as translucent as an X-ray.

More than anything, Horenstein is a master of synecdoche, communicating an animal’s essence by photographing its head, teeth, tail, or leg. Octopus, Octopus cyanea, for example, offers two arms as elegantly coiled as those of a supermodel. Stubby Squid, Rossia pacifica captures a rotund squid with only the nearest portion in perfect focus; the rest recedes into a pleasing blur.

Horenstein could easily have turned his project into an environmentalist critique: free-swimming animals captured once and then freed, as it were, by the photographer. But one gets the feeling that Horenstein has no overarching agenda—that he’s simply entranced by the various shapes of these exotic animals.

Though he obviously shares Anderson & Low’s fascination with form, his method offers a counterpoint: Rather than aiming high and ending up with kitsch, Horenstein creates something elevated from the humblest of beasts. It’s always risky to attribute human emotions to animals—but it’s also hard to avoid feeling a stronger bond with Horenstein’s odd-looking sea creatures than with Anderson & Low’s too-perfect people. CP