The American University Museum’s exhibit of works by four local photographers carries an amusingly casual title—-“Some Uses of Photography: Four Washington Artists.” It’s a modest threshold, and the artists in the show exceed it.
In “17 Cubes,” Jenn De Palma blurs the lines between painting, photography, and film. The filmed portion of her work shows the random dropping of black-and-white cubes; the film runs as a diptych, one half right-side-up and the other upside-down. With this raw material, the artist made still photographs of the cube-drop, then used those images to create hand-drawn renderings that are displayed on the wall (bottom).
It was intended to raise questions about the variety of roles for the artist in a multifaceted work, but what’s more interesting than conceptual contemplation is simply losing yourself in the filmed portion of “17 Cubes.” Watching the cubes fall to a soundtrack of ambient noise is eerily mesmerizing.
Equally conceptual in origin is Siobhan Rigg’s video work, “Too Big to Fail,” a political allegory that, oddly enough, stretches back to chronicle obscure events from the Thomas Jefferson administration. By contrast, the photographs of Ding Ren aren’t explicitly political; the artist offers stripped-down, unframed color prints pinned to the wall, largely landscapes and moody interior tableaux. The most intriguing images consist of light dancing on solid surfaces, suggesting the imagery of the late experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
But the emotional core of the exhibit is a long-running series of photographs that Sandra Rottmann took of her niece, Raquel. Like a more sporadic and visually diverse variant of Nicholas Nixon’s decades-long “Brown Sisters” series, the viewer can see Raquel age, or, more precisely, grow up—-the images track her from toddlerhood to college-age (top).
Rottmann offers a mix of domestic images in both color and black-and-white that have been taken in locales as far-flung as Paris, Peru, and Florida. They’re more informal than Sally Mann’s portraits of young family members, but the artist flexes strong documentary chops. By the time her subject grows up, innocence has incrementally turned to sullenness.
The most notable image was taken when Raquel was a young girl. She reclines, holding a passport photograph of each parent over her eyes – a wink, perhaps, to Kenneth Josephson’s famed 1965 image “Matthew,” which features a young boy holding an upside-down photograph in front of his face. Either way, Rottmann has used the work to make a neat meta comment on her chosen art form.
Through Dec. 14 at the American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC. (202) 885-1000.