Two new shows stretch the definition of the photograph as art while offering original and exciting visual experiences. Experimental Vision: The Evolution of the Photogram Since 1919, at the Denver Art Museum, tracks the long, fascinating history of cameraless photos, dubbed "photograms." And Beyond Photography, at Emmanuel Gallery, skips past history to showcase current experiments in computer-manipulated photography, xerography and postmodern photo-as-text pastiches.
Spanning more than a century of experimentation, the historically precious photograms collected at the Denver Art Museum dazzle with their scope and diversity. This clumsy but effective means of making an image by placing objects directly on photographic paper remained a laboratory stunt until the rediscovery of the technique by Swiss surrealists in 1919. Artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (a Bauhaus founder who coined the term "photogram") and Man Ray (who immodestly called his cameraless photos "Rayographs") turned the ghostly black-and-white effects-photos into trademarks of modernist style.
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Contemporary artists recognize photograms as the logical response to accusations that photography is more science than art. By removing the camera from the photographic process, the picture becomes handmade, simple paper and pigments, hardly different from paintings or drawings. Recent works shown here, all made by such internationally renowned and influential artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Lucas Samaras and Sigmar Polke, display the amazing variety of current photograms. Experiments with ultra-large-scale Polaroid technology and painted-on pigments are only the beginning. New interpretations often incorporate the photogram as one element in multimedia works. Samaras's "Skull and Milky Way" is especially beautiful, mixing an X-ray of the artist's head, outlined in tailor's pins, with a photogram of our galaxy. The pins form a glittering network, sprouting like constellations from the starry backdrop. Polke's melancholy "Der Jungbrunnen" (The Fountain of Youth) combines smoky ambiguity and irrational precision in a single, large mixed-media work. A grid of perfect circles, each containing a different gauzy photogram, masks a view of an apartment interior. A sense of ancient loss and the meaningless pressure of modern life is the numbing message here; ghosts of objects used in the photograms seem to haunt the piece.
Local artists try out a number of experimental techniques at Emmanuel Gallery's Beyond Photography exhibit. Curator Carol Keller puts an emphasis on the many user-friendly special effects now available to artists, from mega-enlargements like Gary Sweeney's "My Parents at Zion," a postcard shot blown up to billboard size, to the deadpan triviality of "The Trouble With Hubble Is Over," James Prez's collection of seemingly random Polaroid snapshots. These minuscule masterpieces echo the artist's much larger photo-grid, "Assertion of Authority." A dozen photographs showing the torsos of plastic action figures are blown up and mounted on the wall. Ridiculous but imposing, these "strongmen" are revealed for the glossy fakes many authority figures turn out to be.
Perhaps the most unusual piece is Linda Kozloff's installation, "Virgo Intacta." Rice-paper screens surround a homey circle of rug, pillows and a lamp. The top half of the interconnected screen presents a dramatic photo-narrative portraying family life: childbirth, intimacy--and isolation. Kozloff's pictures are printed on translucent Mylar and seem to thinly veil the rice paper of the screens, just as family tensions and violence are often hidden under a veil of civility. Finally, Eric Helland's dreamy black-and-white photographs, composed and manipulated with the help of a computer, somehow evoke the distant spirit of times long past. "UFO Cityscape" depicts the modern-day Denver skyline under attack by Fifties-era flying saucers. "Flying Dream" links with surrealistic impact such archetypal images as a running dog, a naked man and a dark forest.
The increasing popularity of photography as a means for art goes hand in hand with the growth of affordable, accessible technology. From antique photograms to the latest digital wonders, these two exhibits show how the still-young field of experimental photography continues its wonderful illusions.