Freeze Frames

"I hate myself and want to die," by Slater Bradley, C-print mounted to Plexiglas.

Denver's Month of Photography ended weeks ago, but many of the exhibits are still up and running. So maybe the highly successful March event should have been called the "Season of Photography," or even "Photo Spring." Regardless of what it should have been called, it was an incredible chance for gallery-goers to see an amazing range of photo-based creations by some of the most interesting artists in the world. For this reason, the community owes a debt of gratitude to Mark Sink, who thought it up, and Rachel Hawthorn and Sabin Aell, who helped organize it. And last, but hardly least, credit must go to the gallery directors and curators who elected to be a part of it by mounting photo shows.

Speaking of which, the side-by-side Robischon Gallery and the Center for Visual Art are both currently showing group efforts exploring conceptual photography. It's interesting to note how the role of photography in conceptual art has completely changed over the past few decades. In the 1970s, photography was mostly used to document performances; now the photos are the centerpieces, and the action in them is simply one part of creating them. Plus, the rise of computer-altered imagery has allowed artists to conjure up people and their surroundings without having to actually stage anything.

Despite the conceptual affinity between the two exhibits, there's an emphatic if underlying dichotomy, since the show at Robischon celebrates life while the CVA's commemorates death. It's comedy versus tragedy, if you will.

The Robischon exhibit, Out of Place, highlights cutting-edge photography from around the world, particularly China. The gallery has become a center for contemporary Chinese art — something that was essential to the success of this show and several others during the past few years. Photography has played a huge part in the art boom in China, and what makes this particularly interesting is that twenty years ago, almost no one there was allowed to own a camera.

To the right are three heavily digitally altered images in chromogenic prints by Chi Peng in which scores of tiny fairies have been inserted or laid over photos of actual, if also altered, cityscapes. In "World," the fairies — nude women with insect wings — fly into the heart of a big city bathed in light from LCD signs. The representation of being airborne is an international idea in conceptual art, but it's of particular interest for many Chinese artists.

Just ahead are photos from Wang Ningde's "Playground in the Years of Ningde" series of chromogenic prints. They also have a gravity-defying subject: Wang himself, flying through the air on swings.

In the main space are documents of performance pieces from Li Wei's "Falls" series, in which the artist is posed upside down with his head buried in the ground or other places. The somewhat violent implications of the photos suggest that he's fallen to earth from a great height. Using cranes and cables invisible in the photos, Li holds his body in rigid postures — as in "Falls to France," a chromogenic print — and further pushes the idea that people are not subject to the laws of nature. All four Lis are remarkable and somewhat disturbing, but "Falls to the Car" takes the cake. In that photo Li's head has pierced a shattered car windshield and his body projects out of it at a skyward diagonal.

Unlikely poses are also of interest to French artist Denis Darzacq, whose three photos are lyrical rather than unnerving. Some of that surely has to do with his subjects — street-performing breakdancers in Paris whom Darzacq shot from the back and at a comfortable distance. They seem to be catching the air and taking off from the ground.

Though not technically surrealist, the magical images by Chi, Wang, Li and Darzacq are surrealistic, something also true of four composite photos by Kahn + Selesnick, including two from their "Mars" series done for NASA. In their work, which apes both early-twentieth-century panoramas and nineteenth-century scientific illustrations, costumed figures cluster around a mechanical contraption.

There is also a selection of Gary Emrich's latest photos of paintings printed on paintbrushes, which create a hybrid of sculpture and photography. In another piece, Emrich does a hybrid of sculpture and digital media called "Modern Living Pre-approved." It's a handmade mailbox of corrugated metal enclosing a monitor on which a close-up of Emrich's hands going through junk mail is played on a loop. Emrich's everyday subject matter contrasts with the otherworldly quality of most of the imagery in the rest of the show.

But that distinction is nothing compared to the change in mood that happens between Out of Place and Still at CVA. Even going through junk mail beats dying, and an interest in death is what connects the three photographers in this show, which was put together by CVA director Jennifer Garner and assistant director Cecily Cullen.

It begins with a selection of grim black-and-white gelatin silver prints of battlefields taken by Sally Mann, the most famous of the three artists featured. The dark and gloomy photos evoke the idea that these bucolic views are also a place for death.

Combining nature with death is also the idea behind some really creepy photos in the back gallery that depict it graphically. Here, Mann has documented bodies that were donated for scientific research and left out in nature so forensic scientists could observe the process of decomposition. I don't need to tell you that I didn't linger with these shots, even though the out-of-focus effects renders them more visceral than gross.

Death is more metaphorical in the strange photos and videos by Slater Bradley, who obsesses over the suicides of Gen X rock stars Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain. These guys turned being bummed out into essential parts of their public personas, which is ironic considering the names of their groups: Joy Division and Nirvana.

Bradley has posed — or had a friend pose — dressed and made up as though he is either Curtis or Cobain. The impersonator plays the role of a living doppelgänger for the dead musician. In "I hate myself and want to die" — now, there's a title — Bradley takes a straight-on portrait of his friend as Cobain. The model, with his head cocked and his hair in his taciturn face, is wearing a Sonic Youth T-shirt, and though he doesn't look anything like Cobain, the illusion makes us think of the tragic rocker anyway. In this way, Bradley shows how these icons live on in the culture long after they've died.

The last of the three photographers in Still is Nigel Poor, a woman who explores dead insects in two installations. In "287 Flies," Poor has taken photos of dead flies and face-mounted them in clear acrylic roundels that have been scattered over a couple of walls in the large set of side galleries. In "Killing Season," Poor actually dispatched the insects herself, though only inadvertently — or maybe as an aside. What she did was to write a dictionary definition of an insect-related word on a sheet of paper. She then attached the sheet to the front of her car so the paper became spattered with dead insects that would have been caught on the grille of her radiator if the paper hadn't been there. "Killing Season" includes digital photos of dozens of these sheets.

While Out of Place is fairly engaging and Still is off-putting, the fact that they are both about conceptual photography gives us a chance to have the aesthetic corollary of a sweet-and-sour sauce: a complex mix of opposing yet complementary tastes.

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