Lens crafters: Two new exhibits bring photos into focus

The fall art season is just getting under way, with several major shows open or about to open, including a few blockbusters. So this will be my last chance for a while to highlight interesting solos that fall short of that designation. Right now there are three worthwhile ones, all of which are made up of either photos or photo-based pieces.

The season opener at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts & Culture Center is the riveting Laura Merage: Look At Yourself, curated by gallery director Simon Zalkind.

Merage and her husband, David, are well known in the art world as donors, having made generous gifts over the years to the Denver Art Museum and to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Merage is also the founder of RedLine, a combination work and exhibition space. But she is an accomplished photographer, as well.

"Laura's philanthropic identity tends to eclipse her work, but when I started looking at her pieces, I realized that she was a true artist," Zalkind says. Two years ago, during the opening of RedLine, Zalkind had a "Eureka" moment while looking at her work. "I saw that she had a kind of single-mindedness of purpose, and that, to me, is evidence of work that's genuine and that has some kind of emotional truth to it."

At first Zalkind considered doing a show made up entirely of Merage's self-portraits, but as he studied her oeuvre, he felt he needed to expand it to include her travel photos, especially those set in Israel, with Merage being devotedly Jewish. "The photos she took in Israel speak to her connections emotionally and culturally — especially the ones with soldiers in them," notes Zalkind. "She was able to capture the ambivalence of the soldiers, and there's a lot going on in those photos."

Though the work, in classic black and white, spans three decades, this isn't a retrospective, because Zalkind zeroed in on certain kinds of work and left out other types. And the pieces are installed by theme rather than chronologically.

The self-portraits, most in silver prints, are remarkable, and it's easy to understand why Zalkind at first considered just looking at those. Many are super-close-ups of Merage's face, which can be unsettling. In some, she's wearing prominent makeup, in one she's got plastic wrap on her face, and in another, she's sporting a Mohawk. And although she is an attractive woman, she hardly highlights her appearance in these images. Also within the self-portrait category are some installation pieces. There are wooden boxes with photos in them, arranged on the floor, and there are photos on diaphanous cloths pinned to the walls.

Zalkind is right about the travel pictures, too, many of which have Jewish content: They are worthy heirs to the street photography movement of a half-century ago, and elegantly capture ordinary sights.

Singer can always be counted on as one of the places in town to see high-quality art, and credit for this rests entirely with Zalkind, one of the city's best curators. Furthermore, he often features Colorado artists, something that doesn't happen in a regular way at most of the other significant venues around the state.

One venue that is highlighting Colorado artists is Edge Gallery, where Elements 2010: Susan Goldstein and Unfinished Photographs: John Davenport are now on display.

Strictly speaking, the Goldsteins aren't photographs, but rather photo-based works done on a computer. The results are fairly abstract and atmospheric in character, with soft edges and blurry shapes taking over. Also, several recognizable things appear, like a vintage image of a child and another of a pair of American Indians; these show up in various places throughout the show. In a number of cases, the images have been assembled into grids of rectangles and squares wherein variations on the same theme are expressed in different ways. The image of the child — which might be the Christ child — is carried out differently depending on where in the grid the image appears: sometimes centered and right side up, sometimes cropped or mounted upside down.

To make these works, Goldstein begins by layering objects onto a sheet of metal. She uses a variety of materials to construct collages: bits of paper, sometimes with found images on them, glass, steel and more. The layered construction is then photographed with a Diana camera. The resulting transparency is scanned, and, using Photoshop, Goldstein produces what she calls "composites." In some cases, she has taken a single image from these composites and blown it up into a stand-alone image — and those were my favorites. She points out in her artist's statement that her method combines hand work (the assembling of the collaged originals) and high-tech processes (the use of the scanner and computer).  

The Davenport show also puts a different spin on photography. Given the title and the fact that there's a tripod set up with an old Agfa portrait camera on it aimed at a chair with drapery in the background, you might think Davenport is going to be taking photos during the course of the show — but he isn't. 

He is doing a photo performance, however, in the cubbyhole. "Mostly what I'm doing is producing stereo cards to show how they're made," he says, explaining that he bought a Realist stereo camera recently. What the camera does is simultaneously take two photos of the same object at slightly different angles. When the two are seen together using a stereopticon, the object has a 3D look to it. "I've become a tourist in my own home town since I got the stereo camera," notes Davenport, who has been photographing fountains and landmarks. "I've fallen in love with Denver because of this camera."

The show has its own charm, especially the cozy display design, and Davenport's photos perfectly match this old-fashioned context.  In addition to the installation and performance, there are also a few portraits, including a compelling one of the late Dale Chisman. And there's a smattering of classic juxtaposition photos, in which Davenport prints a diptych as a single image, like the two shots of a James Brown novelty figurine. These double images are conceptually related to Davenport's interest in stereo photography, but they're different in reality, as they are not meant to be seen as a singular shot.

In addition to Davenport's own work, he's included some of his collection of stereo cards, displayed on a stand in the show. Also, there's a very striking classic nude study by historic Denver photographer Otto Roach that Davenport has placed next to a double-figure study of a nude and a clothed woman that he's done in response to it.

Rarely does a co-op present two shows that have the kind of harmonic convergence that the Goldstein and Davenport outings do.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

Latest Stories