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.

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.

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.

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.