Hocus Focus

Photo magic is in the air this fall.

There's a dizzying array of notable photography shows in Denver right now. And while photographs are always on display somewhere in town, it's hard to recall an autumn with so many photo and photo-based shows as season openers.

There are a number of reasons for this. During the past thirty years, the mechanical reproduction of images has been thoroughly integrated into the pantheon of fine arts. This was the result of a successfully fought century-long campaign by photographers, curators and dealers. In addition, in the age of abstraction and conceptual art, photography is able to incorporate recognizable subjects and objects and still remain completely contemporary -- something that's much harder to do with painting and sculpture.

At a place called the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, you'd always expect to see a photo show, at this or any other time of year. The current CPAC offering, Œevidence¹, was organized by gallery director Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff.

"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.

Details

'evidence'
Through October 19
Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1513 Boulder Street
303-455-8999

Sandy Skoglund
Through November 2
Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway
303-777-9473

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Kohloff's theme for the show was documentary photography in traditional black and white. She chose three photographers -- one from Colorado, and two from California. The work of each is explored in depth, and, as Kohloff observes, each takes a different approach to the medium.

First up is Michael Mowry of Littleton. Mowry's pieces, a group of untitled photos from his recently completed "Eight Days in Nanjing" series, are hung on the wall immediately to the left inside the front door and on the wall around the corner. The photos record a trip he took to China in summer 2001.

As Kohloff points out, the photos are candid; Mowry's subjects were unaware of his presence, let alone his interest. According to Mowry, the people of Nanjing were wary of foreigners, especially those with cameras, so most of these were taken from a moving taxi.

In spite of the slapdash method, Mowry got a lot of beautifully composed photos with a tremendous amount of narrative content. There are children playing, people walking, vendors selling goods from open stalls, even homeless people sleeping on the street. The idea was to construct a montage of unrelated images that, taken together, convey the city in its totality.

Taking candid photos of life on a city's streets is hardly something new, but one very up-to-date aspect of Mowry's photos is his use of computers to make them. Although film was used for the originals, Mowry scanned the photographs, enlarged the images on a computer, and then printed them out on a laser printer. Laser-printed images invariably disintegrate somewhat, a feature that works well with the grittiness of many of these scenes.

Following Mowry is Norma Quintana, a California photographer with a totally different approach. For one thing, her photos are posed, not candid. She also zeroes in on a single topic over a long period of time rather than many topics over a few days. And she produces good old silver gelatin prints, not computer prints.

For the last four years, Quintana has taken portraits of the members of a multi-ethnic traveling circus called Circus Chimera. (Coincidentally, when 'evidence' opened last month, Circus Chimera was appearing in Golden during its annual multi-state tour.)

The photos are remarkably engaging; Quintana has obviously developed a rapport with the performers during their numerous shooting sessions. In many of these pictures, the subjects look straight out at the viewer. An example is "Saul," a photo of an acrobat in ratty tights who, despite his eye makeup, looks fairly menacing. In others, the subjects look away. "Circus Toddler" portrays a severe-looking woman in a preposterous outfit that's part mod and part medieval. She's holding a small child, and both mother and child wear the same impassive if not taciturn expression. In still others, the performers themselves are secondary to props -- as in "The Fan," in which a man is draped over a huge exhaust fan.

Quintana contrasts the serious poses struck by the performers with the lighter context of the circus, reinforced mostly through her subjects' outlandish costumes.

The last photographer in 'evidence' is Claudio Cambon from California, whose work is installed back in the main room. Cambon does not paint with Mowry's broad brush or take an up-close look like Quintana; instead, he tells a coherent story from start to finish.

For these photos, Cambon followed the process by which an oil tanker, the American "SS Minole," was scuttled. He took the ship's final cruise, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Chittagong, Bangladesh, and poetically recorded it. After being beached, the ship was manually dismantled by the poverty-stricken workers of Fahad Steel Industries.

Cambon uses the ship's enormous size as a key element in his pictures, some of which are completely dominated by its dramatic and sculptural form. Others highlight the workers: hundreds of men and boys, many of them barefoot and wearing no protective gear of any kind, doing extremely dangerous things such as climbing over the towering ship's hull, cutting it up with torches and lowering massive pieces to the beach with ropes and pulleys.

It's a topic I knew nothing about before I saw these photos. One of Cambon's objectives is to raise awareness about the issues of developing countries.

CPAC's 'evidence' lays out the many possibilities within the small world of documentary photography. The intellectual content, as well as what it says about the state of the art, makes for interesting viewing.

The big fall show at Rule Gallery on Broadway is Sandy Skoglund. Like 'evidence,' Skoglundis essentially a photography show, but that's where the comparison ends. Rule does not specialize in photography -- the gallery is usually fitted out with paintings -- but has long included the medium in its exhibition schedule.

The hugely famous Sandy Skoglund is a New York artist whose work can be found in museum, corporate and private collections around the world, including that of the Denver Art Museum. Skoglund came to the fore at the beginning of the 1980s.

That was the perfect decade for artists such as Skoglund, for several reasons.

An art rebellion staged by both artists and collectors took place in the '80s. People were tired of the half-century of formalist vs. anti-formalist debate that had been raging in the contemporary-art world. There seemed to be an inevitable progression from the cerebral and psychological abstract expressionism to its glib and sociological rejoinder in pop art, and from there to the end-all-discussion-on-the-matter arrival of minimalism.

This was all so heavy, and the '80s seemed like a good time to have some fun. Conceptualism was coming on strong, too, and Skoglund's work filled the bill on both counts. She created installations, and her photos, which today are her major claim to fame, are basically luxurious documents of her room-sized creations. Furthermore, simulating reality and subsequently recording the created environments puts Skoglund in the category of postmodern artist, another factor that helped propel her popularity.

In an additional bit of serendipity, the art world began to examine and rethink its entrenched sexism in the '80s. When, as a result, galleries and museums began looking for art by women, Skoglund was there. In fact, she was among the first generation of women to benefit from the efforts of feminists to give artists equal opportunities. Hard to believe it began only a couple of decades ago.

Finally, Skoglund's artifacts, installations and photos are perfectly crafted. Such attention to technical mastery gives her work an added appeal.

Skoglund's many attributes are showcased in the Rule show. The exhibit begins with "Blue Dog #11," a sculptural detail from an installation. The wall facing the entrance has been covered with fake grass. On a similarly covered stand in front is a blue cast-resin dog that's based on a cartoon canine.

The dog was an element of "The Green House," a Cibachrome print from 1990 that hangs on the other side of the same wall. In this photo, Skoglund portrays a room filled with cartoony blue resin dogs of every description. The furniture and the floor are covered in the fake grass used in the installation detail. "The Green House" is signature Skoglund and features a more-or-less realistic setting filled with imaginary and imaginative versions of animals.

"The Green House" is well-known and widely exhibited. Another famous image is "Fox Games," a Cibachrome print from 1987 in which red resin foxes frolic in a whitewashed restaurant. (The DAM owns a later and different version of both the installation and the Cibachrome print of "Fox Games." In these, the foxes are off-white and the restaurant is red.)

An interesting aspect of the Skoglund exhibit is the inclusion of early pre-classic pieces dating back to the late 1970s. These long-ignored works are undergoing a reappraisal right now, as evidenced by the inclusion of 1978's "Peas on a Plate" in Visions from America, Photographs, being presented at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The show at Rule also has a "Peas on a Plate" print. In it, Skoglund has arranged peas in a square in the middle of a plate decorated with polka dots; the plate sits on a tablecloth that has a pattern of polka dots within colored squares. Gosh, these early pieces nearly bring us back to that formalist/anti-formalist dialogue, don't they?

Skoglund's accomplishment is undeniable, and her place in the history of photography is assured. Because of this, Sandy Skoglund is one of the most important exhibits in town this fall.

I do have a duty to be true to myself, though, so I must confess that Skoglund's works have always struck me as pretty vacant -- conceptual without a concept. They're too clever, too cute, too kid-friendly: In my mind, I've always linked them to the goofy views of tarted-up dogs by William Wegman. And that's the cruelest thing I could ever say about any photograph.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I don't think it's enough for art to just be clever, cute or kid-friendly. And we can't even give Skoglund the benefit of the postmodern doubt, because we'd have to extend Wegman the same courtesy. And that also goes for any credit Skoglund might garner for how finely done the work is, because that's another Wegman strength.

I know I'm in the minority on this. If Skoglund's funhouse is what you're looking for, then you'll love this show. For me, the unpretentious photos at CPAC are considerably more appealing.

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