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Interwoven Opposites

Visual and Thematic Layers in the Photography of Larry Larsen and Frank Lavelle

The two drawers photographers whose work is on display this week, Larry Larsen and Frank Lavelle, explore collisions and contradictions: Larsen creates scenes focused on the interplay of light and color, in which opposites interact and collapse, while Lavelle’s work explores more thematic contradictions between modernity and tradition in an Irish pilgrimage.

Dahlias, Pike Place Market, 2014

In his recent series, Larry Larsen’s images exist somewhere between film noir and a convenience store freezer aisle, with a color scheme reminiscent of painter Edward Hopper. Larsen writes: “I am interested in the painterly quality of light, color, and gesture that evokes a sense of mystery in the mundane moments of life. All of my work is captured on the scene with available light.” One image, “Dahlias, Pike Place Market,” from 2014, shows a bouquet of flowers, with the entire frame obscured by a plastic wrapping beginning to peel at one corner. Aside from making the flowers appear aged or even dead, encased like a carcass, the plastic residue calls attention to the physicality of the photograph, alluding to the emulsion of the film itself and mimicking the peeling edges of a polaroid transfer.

Flaneur, 2013

Another picture, “Flaneur,” from 2013, offers an urban street scene, in which a man in a wide brimmed hat faces the passing cars and pedestrians. The title alludes to the idea of the voyeur/spectator, made popular by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin: the flaneur observes the comings and goings of urban life, later channeling his musings into an artistic outlet. Baudelaire writes in The Painter of Modern Life: “the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” The observer in the hat, then, serves as a stand-in for the artist, as the title alludes doubly to the figure within the frame and behind the camera. All of Larsen’s images have this flaneur-like quality, a curious attention to light, movement, and color, which contributes to the creation of an image not unlike artist James Turrell’s light sculptures, both kaleidoscopic and painterly.

Frank Lavelle’s monochromatic 2014 series diverts from the saturated colors of Larsen’s work, documenting the Reek Sunday annual pilgrimage, during which thousands of pilgrims climb Ireland’s 2,000-foot holy mountain, Croagh Patrick. The project playfully vacillates between portraits of devoted pilgrims in traditional, modest robes, making the journey barefoot and with wooden walking sticks, to teenagers and businessmen in modern clothing taking selfies at the summit. The series pictures these two worlds colliding with one another, modernity and antiquity stumbling side by side up the ravine.

Reek Sunday 10, 2014

The series opening and the closing images, “Reek Sunday 1” and “Reek Sunday 10,” together exhibit this phenomena beautifully. The first shows a religious icon on a stone pedestal, his blinding white figure juxtaposed with the darkening sky. The figure offers forth a clover with an outstretched hand; below this symbol of spiritual purity a sign reads “donations for oratory on summit.” Like the collisions between modernity and the distant past, this image suggests the prevalence of consumer culture within organized religion, the commodification of what was once spiritual and holy. However, the images avoid nostalgia or judgment, instead seeing humor in these contradictions, notably with these two images side by side. “Reek Sunday 10” shows a pilgrim taking a selfie, his position echoing that of the statue, with an outstretched arm offering a cellphone rather than a clover, his dark form contrasting with the pale white sky. The series examines religious iconography and saintliness, picturing a modern spirituality in which technology and antiquity comingle; both pilgrims toting walking sticks and selfie sticks ascend the holy mountain together.

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