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At Hemphill Fine Arts to March 2
At the Troyer Gallery to Feb. 16
To judge from the number of recent exhibitions, landscape photography has a particular appeal to Washingtonians. Over the past few years, Washington galleries have exhibited the Western expanses of Macduff Everton and Adriel Heisey, the moonlit vistas of Michael Kenna, the blurred neighborhoods of Terri Weifenbach, the moody horizons of Hiroshi Osaka, and the beautiful-ugly mine sites of Mark Abrahamson.
All of these artists hew fairly closely to the traditional technique of landscape photography: They find the right vista and then trip the shutter. Even the most experimental of them—Weifenbach—sets herself apart simply by choosing not to focus. Despite this decision, most of Weifenbach’s images are immediately recognizable as landscapes.
Washington artist Colby Caldwell, by contrast, whose work is now on view at Hemphill Fine Arts, uses a multistep process to produce a kind of reverse photorealism, in which he makes his photographs look more like paintings. And photographer Chris Foley and painters Trevor Young and Ann Hartman, whose pieces are on display at the Troyer Gallery, create eclectic, not-always-landscapey work that has been bundled together under a rubric perhaps more appropriate for Caldwell’s show: “Lyrical Landscape.”
The 13 works in Caldwell’s exhibition mark the culmination of—or at least a major turning point in—a decadelong aesthetic journey. Caldwell, a North Carolinian who teaches at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, spent much of his early career making traditional black-and-white photographic prints. Initially, Caldwell had models sit for him; one of his major projects was to photograph them floating in pools. In the darkroom, Caldwell used special effects, such as printing his negatives with light partially shielded by gauze or stockings, that sometimes gave his images the look of Renaissance paintings.
In the mid-’90s, Caldwell quit working with actual people, zooming in instead on details from old paintings, books, or television stills. To do so, Caldwell switched to a video camera, because it allowed him to focus on a plane only a few inches from the edge of the lens. This line of pursuit led Caldwell to a home movie that his grandfather had made during a hunting trip to Montana in the ’60s. Caldwell first experimented by capturing a black-and-white still from the movie, featuring figures walking across a landscape, but he quickly decided that color was essential to the project’s success. He also began creating his own source material for the first time in years.
The result is “Songs,” Caldwell’s fourth show at Hemphill. With the exception of the Dorothea Lange-like Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (Great-Grandmother)—which is linked thematically to his work with the hunting-trip film—the images in “Songs” were all taken during a visit to Scotland. But to categorize Caldwell’s images as “Scottish landscapes” would be laughably off-base.
For one thing, Caldwell’s exhaustive technical process severely abstracts his images. He begins by photographing a desired landscape with Super-8 film—the old-fashioned, celluloid-based medium most closely associated with vintage home movies. Once he processes the film, Caldwell projects it on his studio wall and reshoots it using a video camera. He then transfers this video recording into his Macintosh computer.
Using two kinds of software, Caldwell isolates sequences of moving images, frame by frame, and then chooses his favorite still from the bunch. He “develops” it on the computer as if it were a darkroom print—that is, using limited dodging-and-burning techniques to achieve the appropriate contrast but not manipulating the image by introducing foreign elements. At the printer, the image is transferred to watercolor paper, which is then mounted onto rag board and inserted into one of the wooden box frames that Caldwell makes himself. To achieve a distinct gloss—and to avoid covering his images in plate glass—Caldwell waxes the surfaces of his works multiple times.
The result could fairly be called dreamlike, but that doesn’t go far enough. Caldwell’s saturated artworks are so ethereal as to be otherworldly. Even the straightest lines and the hardest angles melt when exposed to Caldwell’s photographic process, and the spectrum is reduced to a few indistinct hues, mainly greens, ambers, maroons, and indigos. Viewers shouldn’t bother trying to discover individual blades of grass or tree branches; often, the only recognizable thing in one of Caldwell’s pieces is a gently undulating hillside.
A series of images Caldwell dubs How to Survive Your Own Death appears to have nothing to do with the landscape at all. These completely abstract works are multicolored matrices punctuated by ovoid shapes that look a little like tiny television screens. These works’ exuberant assemblages of dots call to mind the results of DNA typing or electron micrographs. In a more artistic frame of reference, they conjure Mondrian’s Boogie-Woogie series—transitional paintings that set the stage for the painter’s more familiar primary-color grids—as well as ’60s and ’70s op art.
The grid materialized by accident, when Caldwell’s software botched the transfer of one frame of a landscape he’d captured. Fascinated by the happenstance, Caldwell not only mounted the multicolored pattern in its entirety but also divvied up the whole image into 18 separate works, five of which are on view at Hemphill.
The series makes it clear that Caldwell—to a greater degree than most landscape photographers—considers the notion of landscape little more than a means to an end: He junks the familiar landscape-photographer habit of titling a work by its physical location, or at least explaining in the catalog or on a wall card where an image was taken. Some artists, such as photographer John Divola, have gone so far as to provide Global Positioning System coordinates for the sites they document. Caldwell doesn’t emphasize where his pictures were shot—or even, in the case of the Death series, that the images are derived from actual landscapes. Indeed, his pieces brazenly entomb their natural sources with a repetitive pattern that possesses its own, completely separate beauty.
Even more striking, Caldwell claims to not even look through his Super 8’s viewfinder when gathering his raw footage. So nonchalant is he about recording physical reality that Caldwell actually welcomes images that have been transformed by the accidental adhesion of grit, dust, and hair to his negatives. Though none of the images in the Hemphill show were modified in this way, one in the gallery’s upstairs office was. In that piece, what I initially read as a hill turned out to be the outline of Caldwell’s film roll, caught in a momentary slip out of its guideposts.
Despite his unconventional approach, Caldwell proudly remains a photographer. Indeed, he clings to the notion that photography is capable of freezing a momentary reality in a way that other media—painting, sculpture, and even film and video—simply cannot. The difference is that the reality Caldwell cares about is emotional, rather than visual. “I want to mimic how I felt,” he said in an interview. “I’m not trying to describe the landscape. I’m describing a place and what it feels like to be there.”
Unfortunately, Hemphill’s presentation doesn’t explain any of this conceptual background—a major shortcoming that leaves viewers to scratch their heads about the link between Caldwell’s more conventional landscape pieces and the images from the Death series he has intermingled with them. Fortunately, Caldwell’s innovative renderings of ordinary settings are vigorous enough to stand on their own. Like all good art, his pieces assert themselves eloquently on more than one level.
The artists whose work is displayed in “Lyrical Landscape” accomplish something quite different, sometimes turning decidedly nonnatural subjects into compelling visions of the contemporary landscape. Of the three, Young makes the most memorable work—which is ironic, given how dreary his subject matter is. Young paints banal, unpopulated industrial scenes notable mostly for their anonymity—rail yards, airport tarmacs, and highway overpasses, among other things. Some of Young’s oil-on-canvas works—especially those displayed in a group show at Troyer last month—owe a debt to Richard Diebenkorn, turning seemingly bland street scenes into pleasing, angular abstractions. But the influence most obvious in the current exhibition’s offerings is that of the Ashcan School, which Young has almost singlehandedly revived after almost a century of seeming irrelevance.
Young’s subject matter alone could easily qualify him for inclusion among “the apostles of ugliness”—one of the derisive catchphrases used to describe Robert Henri, George Bellows, and their Ashcan colleagues in the first decade of the last century. His heavy brush strokes and dark, brooding palette (highlighted only by creamy whites) seal the deal. By returning to this outmoded style of painting—a combination of figuration and heavy impasto that went out of date as soon as the Armory show of 1913 was hung—Young adds an enigmatic cast to his pieces. They’re modern landscapes, yet they’re painted in an almost pre-modern fashion.
Young’s most impressive piece is Stacked Horizontals. It features a lovely, swooping overpass that skirts a gas refinery—exactly the kind of scene you’d see at 65 mph and then quickly forget. It’s so anonymous that it could be anywhere: the New Jersey Turnpike or a freeway near Long Beach, Calif. Yet the vibrant, twisting curve of the elevated highway—a shape that conjures up the jaunty futurism of Los Angeles International Airport—evokes more organic artistic sources.
Like Young’s, the paintings of Washington artist Hartman embrace an old-fashioned, figurative style. Though Hartman’s works aren’t exactly pure landscapes—and not nearly as dramatic as Young’s pieces—they nonetheless capture the essence of their place. In six separate works, for example, Hartman, like a latter-day Monet, painted an identical segment of a whitewashed fence under different lighting and weather conditions. A pair of barns in a field received similar treatment.
Hartman’s most successful work is Plum Tree, a suite of nine paintings that coalesce into a unified image of a tree standing in front of a house. (To emphasize that the paintings can nonetheless stand alone, the gallery has removed one of the nine from the array and placed it on an adjoining wall.) Like many of Young’s paintings, Plum Tree possesses a bracing temporal dissonance: The simple, burnt-orange wall of the house looks as if it might have been built by postmodernist architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, yet the style of painting harks back a century to James McNeill Whistler.
Foley, the only photographer in the exhibition, improves his work previously exhibited at Troyer, which consisted of pointillistic digital manipulations of wooded landscapes in Labrador, Newfoundland. This time, Foley presents six images of water rushing over rocks in his favorite trout stream in West Virginia. The concept is hardly new—Eliot Porter, among others, has pursued the same idea—but some of Foley’s low-key works make an impression.
The best images in his series—such as Hopeville Canyon Sketchbook #5 and Hopeville Canyon Sketchbook #7—are the most abstract. The less you see of the rocks, and the more you notice the subtle dance of light and shadow on the water, the better. At 36-by-48-inches and with an impossibly close focal plane, Foley’s prints are large enough to swallow you up and transport you to a place where the water gurgles. Like the other artists at Troyer—and, for that matter, Caldwell—Foley reshuffles the deck of landscape art. Their achievements are not epoch-making, but their experiments are welcome nonetheless. CP