Images courtesy of the Bridgette Mayer Gallery
Estudio para Juan Miguel Juan - Compuestos
Photography can be a passive medium, and photography presented as art can sometimes seem only inches away from what anyone can do with a digital camera and a sunny day. Rarely are there sensual clues - surface technique or obvious texture - as in other mediums. A fine eye and quick reflexes often make the difference between the ordinary and the significant in photography, but such nuances may be missed or taken for granted. German Gomez, whose work is currently at Bridgette Mayer Gallery in Philadelphia, is not so subtle.
His large format portraits of men take different forms and address different issues, but all are bold statements enhanced in some way by subtractive or additive manipulation, including cutting, stitching and collage. Gomez, who is from Madrid, appears to have chosen his subjects for their dark-eyed, romantic good looks; even jagged alterations to faces and bodies fail to mar a sturdy attractiveness.
Fichado y Tatuado 1042
A section of the show called 'Tatuados' (Tattooed) features 'fichados' - men with police records - posed with the insouciance of fashion models while flaunting memorable, delicately drawn tattoos; the hard facts of their police identities under the photos both contradict and emphasize the beauty of the images.
Robert Peter Marc - Compuestos
Gomez's Compuestos (Composed) series, as the title implies, includes collaged portraits that incorporate different angles of the same face, evoking a surreal play of mental and physical identity. Some portraits make use of stitching with black thread and translucent layers, a rich effect with endless possibilities, while others have a harsher, more insistent push into the macabre. Gomez's work is provocative and at times unsettling, yet it never relinquishes a enduring sense of clean magnetic beauty.
Images courtesy of the Bridgette Mayer Gallery
Pat Steir: Water and Sand at Lockes Gallery
I first became aware of Pat Steir when I assigned an Art in America article about her work to a student years ago. I can't remember what the student did with it, but Steir's graceful, mesmerizing work really stuck with me. I was happy, therefore, to find it close to home, in a fine exhibit currently at the Locks Gallery in Center City Philadelphia. The large color drenched canvases seem somehow made for this particular setting with its dark ceiling and columns; the fit of space and content has an organic, inevitable feeling that adds satisfaction to the experience of the show.
Any description of Steir's painting includes the word 'waterfall' - the pictures make the description self-explanatory. She treasures the happenstance of art-making, a value she credits in part to her friendship with John Cage, who introduced her to its potential. Steir's work testifies to her chronology - her Action Painting approach connects her not only to the ideas of Cage but also to older, but not distant contemporaries Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Color pours down her canvases in watery, nuanced sheets of layered hue, shade, and value: the action of the making continues in the finished work.
At a distance the canvases give off a rich, soothing rhythm, but up close the general blur defines into fine trails that mingle, divide, and pool together. There is also a strong link to Chinese landscape painting, mentioned in the press release for the show, manifested in a feeling of ethereal grandeur as well as the fine layering of organic strokes. Most of the works in the show are named for the pigments she used in creating them: naples yellow, paynes grey, indigo, a particular green or blue. Several include gold pigments.
White over Indigo, 2011 Lockes Gallery exhibit
A good part of the pleasure of the work, for me, was inspecting the surfaces at close range, finding the happy accidents that arise from Steir's process - rivulets of gold coursing through, over, and behind sheets of white, blue, green, leaving little nuggets at a crossroad where she made a divide, a buried color suddenly peeping through to make a quietly assertive statement.
Pat Steir: Water and Sand is at the Locks Gallery through November 26.
There's a lot of art to see in Old City Philadelphia, but currently there are two shows that stand out. In medium and execution they're at opposite ends of the spectrum, but if you're interested in thoughtful, careful work by sophisticated professional artists, you should see them both. Dust and Shade, Drawings by Charles Ritchie, at Gallery Joe, brings you into a quiet, small-scale world of finely observed detail. Ritchie has 4 sketchbooks in the show - see them first, and you'll understand a lot about his approach. His rich delicate watercolors and tiny spidery handwriting bring to mind 19th century Victorian sketchbooks, but when you examine the framed drawings on the wall you see that he brings the same detailed awareness of the possibilities of the ordinary to his finished work.
A dark night, a suburban house under a streetlight, a scrim of bare branches - this is Ritchie's touchstone. The same quiet neighborhood (his own, in Maryland) figures in many of the works. There is a suggestion of eternal fall, but then comes a scene with snow - the white mounds feel inevitable, as if they're guarding the house through the winter. Subtle tricks with the light and shadows give a slightly surreal feeling and bring to mind Magritte's painting, Empire of Light.
Interior scenes are soft, graphite stills of life interrupted for just a moment, but look closely and watch the tiny spidery handwriting emerge around the edges. You're back to Ritchie's sketchbooks and his gift for detailed observation of life as it happens.
Snyderman-Works Gallery, an extraordinary, impeccable place that has been championing fine art/craft for almost 50 years, is showing Sonya Clark's deeply intelligent mixtures of craft, art, history, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Like Ritchie, has a touchstone in the ordinary, but for her it's not the romance of a familiar neighborhood, it's the edgy duality of a simple plastic comb. The stunning centerpiece of the show is a wall-hanging portrait of the African-American entrepreneur C. J. Walker, who, in the late 1900's, made a fortune with hair products, including one that helped prevent scalp disease. From a distance it appears photographic, perhaps an extreme enlargement of a daguerrotype, or even a cut paper silhouette, but in reality it is made of hundreds of the banal black plastic combs that figure in many of Clark's works. For this portrait she manipulated her medium, breaking out teeth and crisscrossing the combs to give her a surprisingly fluid vocabulary.
Hair, real or imitated with yarn, is at the heart of the work on display. Some examples are blatantly humorous - Abraham Lincoln on a 5 dollar bills sports a 70's era Afro - but peel back the layers and you'll find the Emancipation Proclamation, the plight of freed African slaves newly dependent on making an elusive, money-driven living, etc - to the present day. 'Diaspora' appears fairly simple at first too - tiny white canvas squares, each with a long tail of dark braid, cluster on a wall, but watch and think and you almost see them start to move, for escape or betterment, and leaving trails of identity and tears.
I was especially struck by 'Comb Carpet' a dark square that is, as it states, made of combs pointing their little spikes upward. It looks like black Astroturf, but as you imagine yourself settling down for a picnic or a nap, you feel the jabs and notice the ripples that disturb the surface. No easy seat this - this is history in subtle, pointed relief. Clark's work is significant - the show at Snyderman-Works is her first one-person show in Philadelphia.
Dust and Shade, Drawings by Charles Ritchie is at Gallery Joe through October 22.
Sonya Clark is at Snyderman-Works Gallery until November 19.
Note: Old City Philadelphia is gritty, lively, edgy, exuberant - a perfect place for the battery of energetic art galleries, studios, hip little shops, and brash neon bars that defines it. First Friday in Old City is, month after month, the best city art party I've ever seen. If you haven't been to it, you're invited, so go!