Photography and Architecture,
Fogg Art Museum
Through April 11, 1998
So you're in the mood to examine architecture as "the public site of social critique" or "the hermetic contemplation of the ritualized object." Or, perhaps your last viewing of a conscientiously arranged collection of photographs ended when the nurse called you in to see the dentist. Either way, the Robert Lehman Gallery at the Fogg Art Museum has an exhibit that is sure to satisfy your photographic predilections.
Tucked away on the second floor of the Fogg, right around the corner nineteenth-century traveling communion set and next door to "France and the Portrait, 1799-1870" is the tiny Lehman Gallery, home to "Building Representation: Photography and Architecture, Contemporary Interactions" through April 11. Deborah Kao, Associate Curator of Photographs, and Martin Kao, lecturer at the Graduate School of Design, have skillfully assembled an exhibit of 18 large-scale works by contemporary photographers who manipulate architectural spaces through the camera lens.
"Contemporary Interactions" is almost misnormer when it comes to describing the work of Abelardo Morell. A professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, Morell manipulates light through one of the oldest optical tricks in the book--you have never seen wallpaper like this. An inverted Manhattan skyline spans the walls of an empty room in one large photograph; on the other side of the gallery's entrance, grayscale clapboard houses cascade behind the dimpled shadows of a rumpled bed. The result is spellbinding. Forget the brainless integration of disparate images accessible to anyone with Adobe Photoshop; Morell wields a technique known since the time of Plato (think the Cave Allegory): the camera obscura, in which a single aperture allows for the projection of outside images onto the walls of a darkened room. It is comforting to note, as Morell's students reputedly do, "that something this low tech could be so magical."
James Casebere's surreal photographs of plaster models and catacomb-like spaces display the camera obscura method in a markedly different manner. For Casebere, his studio becomes a metaphorical representation of the pinhole camera; his eerie black and white prints, though smaller and less enchanting than Morell's work, beguile the viewer. In "Toilets," a dye destruction print, 11 toilet bowls march across the back wall of something resembling a prison cell: the third bowl in the sequence lies dejectedly on its side, a single white beam illuminating its slightly skewed seat. The accompanying placard describes the photographer's intentions to use "art as a process of social dialogue," but the social dialogue of a fallen toilet bowl is rather unclear. Because Casebere's photos are mostly white, they seem like mere Braille against an ascetic backdrop, as though touching the prints would convey more information than the simple act of viewing.
For those wary of stark severity, fear not--the exhibit includes a quintet of colored prints. Though they hold little geometric innovation; Shellburne Shellburne Thurber's trio of photographs seems Bohemian next to the sophisticated simplicity of Morell's and Casebere's works, by virtue of color alone. Thurber depicts three rooms from his deceased Aunt Anna's house which are in interior decorator's nightmare. More aesthetically pleasing than these purple-and-yellow bookshelves and orange curtains are the strong diagonals delineated by Stephane Couturier's gargantuan Paris construction photos, which flank the entrance to the gallery.
Due to the Kaos' efficient arrangement and economy of illumination, the Lehman gallery itself becomes a built space worthy of investigation. Both Sugimoto's and Couturier's works lie outside the main room, luring viewers inward, where the largest photographs--some nearly six feet tall--line the dark gray walls of the smallish room. Lighting is wisely kept at a minimum. In theory, this would allow the photographs themselves to suffuse the room with patches of brightness. While a ghostly luminescence does seem to be emitted by some of the prints, supplemental track lighting glances off the glass of the smaller works, casting angular reflections on the hardwood floor that mimic the exhibit's strict geometrical lines.
This installation of 18 photographs can be easily examined in a period of ten to 15 minutes, although the combination of technical intricacies and striking imagery--as opposed to the artists' self-proclaimed inducement of "cultural critique and meta-commentary"--will undoubtedly inspire the viewer to linger. Tired of Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe or those ubiquitous sepia prints of rose-bearing children, you owe yourself a trip to the Fogg to see how these six contemporary photographers toy with spatial axes and optics. Afterwards, you may never look at your room in the same light again.
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