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Monochrome and Color Landscape in the work of Brian Kosoff and Jenni Kowal

The Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week, Brian Kosoff and Jenni Kowal, both portray landscape, but in vastly different manners. Kosoff’s large-format nightscapes explore the uncanny nature of rural scenery, while Jenni Kowal’s color-saturated mountain scenes depict natural cycles, both monumental and slight.

Barn (2012)

Brian Kosoff offers us vacant cemeteries under the moonlight, streetlights at the ends of empty roads, and anthropomorphic tree branches. The series conveys a similar mood to Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, scenes all at once pensive and vaguely menacing. The star trails created by the use of a long exposure do not swoop parabolically through the sky, instead catapulting catastrophically towards earth in diagonal streaks. Kosoff describes the series, writing: “at night, with the skies now transparent, we are truly outside and at the whims of nature, [we realize] that we are just fragile passengers on a small, spinning ball in the middle of nowhere.”

Bonneville (2012)

The photographs explore the uncanny nature of these country landscapes shrouded in darkness–a setting once pastoral has shifted towards the fantastic realm of a Chris Van Allsburg or Stephen King story, in which residents of a nowhere town question the appearance of unexplained crop circles. One of the images, “Bonneville” from 2012, looks unmistakably extraterrestrial, as the cracked white surface of the salt flats mimics the terrain of planetary craters. The richness of detail and the use of long exposures gives the land in many of the photographs a distinctly tactile quality, with the softly blurred grass in juxtaposition with the explosive and dynamic sky above.

The Lights Over Kantishna (2013)

In her series Alaska: Above and Below, Jenni Kowal also depicts landscapes, differing from Kosoff in her use of vibrant color. Against the backdrop of Alaska’s Denali National Park, Kowal explores shifts in perspective; shot from below, the mountains appear limitless and towering, from above, textured and intimate, like folds of cloth. She articulates this, writing “I feel safe in the mountains because I am powerless beneath them; from above I can see their secrets.” One photograph, “The Lights over Kantishna” from 2013, alludes to Van Gogh’s iconic “Starry Night,” the eery swirls of the Northern lights mark the sky like impressionist brush strokes. As small pictures beg closer viewing in order to discern their details, the darkness of this piece demands that the viewer move closer, creating a squinty intimacy with the photograph.

The School and the Shadow (2013)

In “The School and the Shadow,” also from 2013, shadows of unseen trees line a wooden wall. This deviates from the majestic tone of the rest of the series; it is simple and quotidian, a meditation on light and shadow. Kowal creates a grid of pattern and texture with the seemingly accidental elegance of a found sculpture. The work as a whole depicts different types of vicissitude: monumental shifts, like the slow crumble of mountains, are treated with the same careful reverence as seasonal variations and the even smaller cycles of light and shadow across a wall.

Kowal’s images pay tribute to the grandiose Alaskan scenery, while Kosoff explores the strange mystery of rural nightscapes; both artists depict different states of harmony and tension in natural realms, at times emphasizing juxtaposition, and at others showing graceful interaction between the elements.

Modern Landscape

Urban and Western Scenes in the Work of Ann Kendellen and John Kane

This week, I decided to divert from the model of past weeks’ blog posts: rather than examining the two Drawers photographers in conjunction with one another, through the lens of their commonalities, I examine them both separately. This has allowed me to delve into their distinct themes and concerns, without limiting my discoveries to the qualities they share.

Portland, Oregon (2011)

Baltimore, Maryland (2014)

Portland photographer Ann Kendellen documents small-scale urban streetscapes, creating intricate forms out of graffiti, murals, detritus, dumpsters, and tree branches. Likening the layers of residue to prehistoric cave paintings, Kendellen writes that “cities offer their walls as a modern canvas…compressing the details inside the frame is a way of creating a second view, a reflection on the complex relationships within the jumble of the street.” Her work creates a detailed record of the city’s residents and the imprints they leave behind, both planned and accidental. Kendellen distills a kind of order from chaos, grafting real and imagined objects together through shape and form. For instance, in “Portland, Oregon,” from 2011, a painted tree trunk from a public mural merges with a dumpster resting against the side of the building. Tags and miscellaneous graffiti mark the scene, uniting high and low art in a visual palimpsest: a streetcar labeled “desire” reaches the end of its tracks beside a tag that simply proclaims ‘TITS.’ In a second image, “Baltimore, Maryland” from 2014, Kendellen challenges perceptions of artificiality. The image shows a familiar scene of an apartment building, bordered by a mound of garbage; however, upon closer inspection, the setting reveals itself to be almost entirely fabricated, as the windows, trees, and open white gate are painted on, and only the trash and overgrown sidewalk are three-dimensional. This leads to questions of artistic ‘creation’: if a photograph is largely made up of a painting, does it serve as its own work of art? This recalls the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto (specifically, his dioramas) which picture scenes from inside the Museum of Natural History. The images illuminate the nature of photography as a collector’s art, as a photographer ‘takes’ rather than ‘makes’ an image, uniting fragments of real objects into the mutant form of the frame. Kendellen’s images exhibit these postmodern tendencies, collapsing boundaries between the real and the artificial, crafting forms from urban leftovers with joyous curiosity.

Ranch Below the Caprock, New Mexico

God Bless, Texas (2014)

In Ranchlands, photographer John Kane documents the modern American West, alluding to the grand, sweeping landscapes of Ansel Adams and his predecessors, including Western land surveyors like Timothy O’Sullivan. The wide horizons, leading lines, and cloudscapes reference these forefathers of landscape photography, but the technological structures show a departure from those pre-industrial scenes: the formerly sublime hills are bordered with barbed wire, the monochromatic grayscale has been replaced with intensely saturated, unnatural reds and blues. As Adams’ images served a political purpose, furthering his conservationist agenda and spurring the designation of Kings Canyon as a national park, Kane’s work, in part, suggests the environmental toll of ranching. In “Ranch Below the Caprock, New Mexico,” from 2014, cows nurse on a dusty, irrigated river, the saturated red hues giving it a blood-like quality, like the aftermath of a biblical sacrifice. However, this imagery has more expansive possibilities than simply admonishing violence on nature: Kane writes of his work that “ranching is the occupation and way of life most central to the mythology of the West, and to many of its realities as well. It is intimately and inseparably tied to the Western landscape.” Kane’s images, by showing the vital nature of ranching, complicate and ground the familiar Western landscape imagery of the past. The immense beauty of Adams’ photographs forced a sacrifice of honesty and nuance, as the fallacy of emptiness, with its implications of colonial ideals, has its own adverse political effects. Kane’s work conveys the modern Western landscape as multifaceted, as beautiful and unnerving, inhabited yet vacant. He both probes and admires the patriotism that these Western landscapes inspire through a tainted and strange red, white, and blue color scheme.

-Molly Walls

 

 

Synchronized Rituals

Military and Spiritual Practice in the Work of Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak

The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week, Portland natives Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak, explore different types of ritual: Jarman photographs members of the Oregon National Guard aviation unit performing exercises during training in his 2014 series Hurry Up and Wait, while Isaak documents two distinct religious groups engaged in prayer. Both photographers, although examining disparate settings, question the ways in which verbal and unspoken cues affect ritual movements, investigating harmony and dissonance in transitory spaces.

Firing Weapon, Yakima, Washington, by Andrew Jarman (2014)

In Hurry Up and Wait, Andrew Jarman documents the daily lives of the Oregon National Guard. The photographs show visually familiar practices, referencing the tropes of war photography: guardsmen fly planes, crouch behind guns, and scramble over treacherous terrain. However, the lonely background of the stark Eastern Oregon and Washington landscapes, and the complete absence of any enemy, marks the images as clearly not part of the expected narrative of war journalism: no blood stains the guardsmen’s hands, and their expressions often seem more reflective (see “Returning to Biak, Blackhawk Helicopter”) than aggressive. Jarman notes the setting’s transitory nature in the title, stating: “‘Hurry up and wait’ is an expression that was used throughout training when joking about punctuality and preparedness for exercises and courses. Many of the moments I capture fluctuate between two ends of this motto, while sometimes getting stuck in-between.” The images largely exist in this intermediary state, as Jarman also articulates the importance of verbal cues in the military and their omission in these images: “while the physical actions of the guardsmen are distinct, the commands being given and the narrative surrounding their actions are undefined.” Because of this disconnect between the orders being verbalized and the images presented to the viewer, the photographs become more suggestive, gesturing at underlying meanings rather than asserting any singular message.

Morning Workout, by Andrew Jarman (2014)

This is particularly apparent when considered in light of the history of gender relations in US military history. One image, “Firing Weapon, Yakima, Washington,” shows a guardsman aiming a gun into the empty, dry abyss. Bullet casings can be seen shattering in the air in front of him. The phallic symbol of the gun exploding, and the viewer’s position behind and below the figure, imply themes of masculinity and individualism, reflecting the historically hyper-masculine culture of the military and the limitations for women within it. A second image, “Morning Workout,” pictures two guardsmen, one female and one male, together on the empty quad with arms outstretched towards a blank sky. The two figures don’t look to be exerting any effort, and the motion in this moment looks less like a jumping jack and more like a pause between yoga poses; they seem to be involved in some sort of joint ritual. Unlike the first image, this photograph suggests both unity and tension through synchronized, awkward movements, gesturing ambiguously towards the military’s gender politics, but provoking more questions than answers.

Private Supplication, by Carol Isaak (2014)

Inspired by the Light, by Carol Isaak (2014)

This theme of ritual and repose also marks the work of Carol Isaak, who takes portraits of people performing spiritual exercises in a series from 2014. Her work focuses on the religious practices of two different groups: first, Muslims worshipping in Istanbul, and second, Christians during Ethiopian Orthodox Lent in Addis Ababa. Though Isaak notes the differences between the actions of the two groups, the consistent visual vocabulary that she uses seems to collapse the boundaries between them: her fascination with light shapes created by stained glass windows, as well as the layers of texture and pattern in different tapestries, give the visual narrative a cohesion that suggests an even larger practice of spiritual coordination across borders and barriers. “Private Supplication” shows a man crouched on a patterned carpet, with a square of light cast beside him from an unseen window. The light imprint serves as a metaphor for a spiritual presence, especially when both the window casting the shadow and the sun are absent from the image, literally elevated above the figure in prayer. Though the man is alone in his practice, the collection of images of prayer within Isaak’s body of work, and the ways in which the poses of the figures echo one another, suggests harmonious unity. A second image, “Inspired by the Light,” shows two men facing a window, in a richly colored and decorated room with layers of intricate patterns. Electric lights hang from the ceiling, some glowing and some dark, becoming part of the ritual in their arrangement of pattern and repetition. Isaak’s work shows a fascination with what goes unspoken, with the spiritual implications of a series of movements; this dovetails with Jarman’s work, which fixates on what is spoken but remains silent in the photographic image. Both series examine the intricacies of ritual movements, through military or spiritual exercises, exploring the transient spaces between words.

-Molly Walls

Subversive Text

Titles and Signage in the Work of Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan

The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week are Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan. Keeping with the precedent set by last week’s blog post, I am looking at the ways their images, although different, complement and parallel one another. On first look, their photography blatantly contrasts with one another. Harvey pictures American scenes, especially interactions between strangers, often in an urban environment, while Haytayan focuses on the domestic space that her son and daughter inhabit and the ways they interact with each other. Both photographers, however, use text in ways that subvert or complicate their visual narratives, such as with Harvey’s incorporation of signage and Haytayan’s use of the series title Innocence.

 

The photographs of Stewart Harvey, from his project Ephemeral Views, show instances of modern American life: in the tradition of Robert Frank, they show people interacting, in environments both iconic and quotidian, such as hippies dancing at Burning Man, crowds of tourists and locals walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and Portlanders waving the Timbers Army banner. In the first photograph, “Bourbon Street Encounter,” from 2013, a woman in a satin outfit with a wide-brimmed, translucent hat turns away from the viewer, disproportionately large because of her proximity to the camera. Instead of her face, we see that of a man walking towards her, the sunlight over the tops of buildings illuminating him. The title leads to the question: what encounter are we witnessing? We are, of course, witnessing more than one: that between the photographer and the scene, between the two figures, between the buildings, the light, and the burgeoning crowd behind them that will dissipate in an instant. In several of Harvey’s images, text adds to this layered narrative: a sign beside the woman’s head advertises “HUGE ASS BEERS,” and restaurants list their menu offerings. Flags line the block, both American and those of many other nationalities, showing the modern urban environment as one where cultures collide and intermingle endlessly. The next image, “Photochapel Couple” from 2013, employs text to gesture at underlying meaning. It shows two figures approaching a structure that displays photographs, presumably for sale. Beside the structure, a sign reads: “PHOTOCHAPEL IS FRAGILE.” The image again manipulates perspective: the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the strange images stored in the object itself, disoriented to realize that they are, in fact, photographic prints on display. Though the warning of fragility relays the literal instability of the shrine-like structure, it also suggests other meanings: “chapel” points to the reliquary-like presentation of the prints themselves, but the word “fragile” complicates, and perhaps undermines, this elevated nature. This aligns with the questioning of the truth claim in Harvey’s images, through manipulations of space and proportion that subvert the supposed verisimilitude of the photographic image.

 

Though Tamar Haytayan’s images focus on the private sphere and the relationship between her daughter and son, the work also expands in meaning through text: each image is titled “Innocence,” while often picturing the darker, grittier sides of childhood. For instance, the first photograph, “Innocence 5,” from 2012, shows her daughter with a towel on her head in the kitchen, her face curled up in an indignant snarl. The foreground and background are shrouded in heavy black and the camera is slightly tilted, giving the image a disorienting, almost nightmarish quality. The literal darkness of the image, combined with the discomfort of the subject and the strange camera angle, undermines the ideal of purity, creating instead a more complex, often fearful and angry, depiction of childhood. The second image, “Innocence 1,” shows one of the artist’s  children’s hands draped over the lip of the bathtub. Grit lines the fingernails, and the monochromatic nature of the print masks the color of the hand: it could be muddied with dirt, but its dismembered quality suggests something more violent. Not all of Haytayan’s photographs fixate on such darkness: one image, “Innocence 7,” pictures a hug between the two siblings, with soft, sleepy light; “Innocence 2” shows her son with sun through the window illuminating his bright eyes, giving his face a painterly, classical quality. However, the two on display this week do highlight a trend in her work to subvert traditional ideas of childhood innocence, alluding to contemporaries like Sally Mann and harkening back to pictorialists such as Julia Margaret Cameron.

Both Drawers photographers on display this week incorporate text in ways that challenge the traditional duality of text and image, integrating them through literal photographs or through titles, and thus allowing the work to expand in meaning.

- Molly Walls

Streetlight Landscapes

The Surreal Work of Andrew Hartzell and Ed Hamilton

With this post, Blue Sky is proud to introduce Molly Walls, a summer intern from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She will post a new piece here weekly over the course of her internship, each time looking closely at two photographers featured in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers cohort. We welcome Molly to the blog, and we welcome you to come discover these and many other compelling photographs at Blue Sky this summer.

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As an intern, along with working on exhibitions in the galleries, I’ve become interested in the unique ongoing project of Blue Sky’s Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers (“Drawers”). Founded in 2007 when the gallery moved to its current location, the Drawers program features a yearly juried installment of photography, selected from an open call for entries to artists living in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Montana. Each chosen artist shows ten original prints, which are kept inside large, flat file drawers. The project allows for innovative photography to reach a wider audience, showcasing many diverse bodies of work, selected this year by jurors Shane Lavalette, of Light Work in Syracuse, New York, and Prudence Roberts, writer, curator, and professor at Portland Community College. Every week, we highlight two photographers from the Drawers by placing two selected images from each on a pair of wooden easels on top of the Drawers. Though the Drawers photographs are sorted alphabetically by artist, and therefore, any similarities between the two artists that share a drawer are purely coincidental, the pairings do often have thematic harmony (as former Blue Sky intern Jason Horvath noted aptly in his blog posts on the subject). The two artists on display this week, in particular, have remarkable parallels: both Andrew Hartzell and Edward Hamilton’s bodies of work are photographed entirely at night; they also show a preoccupation with electric light and with  urban and suburban landscape.

            

Hartzell’s photographs, from his series Stars and the Electric Glow, address the relationship between electric and natural light, picturing the two together: these moments reveal, rather than blatant opposition, mimicry between the two forces. The first of the two selected images, “An Unfamiliar Glow of Streetlights,” from 2013, shows a forest below a road; orange streetlights emit a warm glow between the trees. A bright spot of light near the center of the image could be either one of these streetlights or the sun itself rising above the hill, as the photo collapses the boundaries between natural and artificial through repetition in form and color. In the second photograph, “There’s a Freeway Running through the Yard,” from 2012, taken below an overpass, orange orbs from streetlamps light the edges of hanging tree branches. This silhouetting effect recalls the way the sun or moon might glow through plant life, but the artificiality of the electric lamps gives the scene an uncanny, almost Lynchian glow. In Hartzell’s scenes, not only do manmade and natural light intermingle, but also manmade and natural landscape, such as with the trees scattered below the roadside in the first image, and the concrete structures looming beyond the forest in the second. Part of the eerie strangeness of Hartzell’s images comes from the transitional time of day that most of them were taken: an ambiguous gloaming between night and day, perhaps before sunrise but maybe after sunset. This ethereal mood, rather than having a harsh or jarring effect, creates a sort of romantic strangeness, like how putting Vaseline over a camera’s lens dreamily warps an image with flares of light.

  

Though the subject matter of Edward Hamilton’s series Eastside Walkabout parallels Hartzell’s, his images show a sharp focus and use of line that is notably un-romantic. Taken around Southeast Portland, his nightscapes feature a surreal, sometimes nightmarish, urban setting. In the first of the two selected pictures, “Mirror,” from 2014, empty school busses line a vacant street, their darkened windows and rigid repetition giving them an almost sinister quality. A mirror near the top of the photograph reflects an empty parking lot somewhere behind the viewer, suggesting paranoia and the sense of being watched. The electric light in these images does not mimic or echo anything natural, but rather takes on a digitized, futuristic hue, giving each scene a subdued sense of foreboding reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The second selected image, “Springwater,” from 2014,  shows a bike path, streaked with light trails, beside a looming water tower, bordered by a chainlink fence caked with rust. The bursts of light, though obviously emitted by a biker or jogger and captured through a slow shutter speed, take on a shape and form of their own, dynamic and vaguely supernatural. Light from the street lamps above the pathway trails off in swooping streaks, rope-like and jolting into the sky. The orange tint of the image accentuates the strange, ghostly mood; the position of the viewer below the water tower enforces the earlier sense of being monitored.