The ongoing success of the biennial Month of Photography is astounding. Since it debuted in 2004, MoP just gets stronger and stronger with each iteration. Founder Mark Sink has said he'll be less involved in 2021, but his relentless push through tireless advocacy has already taken it very far. Working independently from one another, artists, curators and galleries all make significant contributions to the whole in this year's iteration. There are so many photo-related shows in town right now, seeing them equates to an informal master’s degree in contemporary photography.
The star attraction at Michael Warren Contemporary is Gwen Laine: Of Light & Wind, a large solo comprising the Denver artist’s deconstructed and reconstructed landscape photos. Long interested in depicting nature and natural scenes, which she has typically abstracted, Gwen Laine goes a step or two further with this latest work. Instead of creating gauzy, soft-focused depictions of plants, as she’s done before, here she's reduced the scene to colored lines only a hair’s width across, giving them a very post-minimal vibe.
Laine’s process for these pieces begins with photographs that resemble her earlier work, out-of-focus landscape studies. But these images are scanned into a photo program, allowing Laine to exploit the character of the unique light, and therefore unique palette, captured by the camera on different days and at different times of day, by isolating each hue. She then converts every shade into a single-pixel-wide line, assembling a hundred lines to the inch to build her compositions. In order to determine the sequencing of the different hue lines, Laine tops her negatives with linear weather charts from the same day and time, using the direction of the winds as guides to where each color should be placed.
Gallery co-director Mike McClung points out that while these digitally altered photos are technically nothing more than a multiplicity of thin horizontal or vertical lines, arrayed in parallel rows, many of the finished photos still appear to be views of the landscape. The specific colors from which the palettes have been assembled and the organization of the lines do the trick.
Michael Warren has supplemented the Laine photos with a tight little group show in the back, which includes digital remixes of abstracts and buildings by Fred Hodder, Paul Sisson’s shots of modern ruins in the West, an unusual boxed portfolio of photos from Mexico by Heidi Jung, and much more.
Down the street at Rule Gallery is another group show by a trio of photographers who all create images of enigmatic scenes involving cloth in some way, which partly explains the exhibit’s title: In the Fold.
The first of the three is Renluka Maharaj, a native of Trinidad and Tobago who lives part of the year in Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work is staged, typically concerns her own life, and raises issues related to race, history and gender. She addresses otherness in a pigmented ink print, “Why So Foreign, Why So Strange,” which depicts her draped in a coral-colored head scarf set within a sea of representations of flowers: floral wallpaper in the background, artificial bouquets in the foreground. Maharaj is also interested in depicting a subtle eroticism; “Purple Mountain Majesties” is a still life with two photos, one of a figure in bondage and the other a live, semi-nude model — Maharaj herself? — partly covered in luxurious sari fabric. Her photos exude a mysterious aura, and the viewer is perhaps not meant to fully understand the photographer's intention.
Susan Blake, who lives in Denver, offers simpler and less elaborately staged photos, but they are akin visually to Maharaj’s aesthetic. Blake's images depict pieces of cloth set in the natural environment, and this small intervention of cloth in the landscape addresses a couple of topics at once. It refers back to the use of drapery in Old Master paintings, a common feature of portraits and history paintings alike, but displaces it by inserting the cloth in the scenery. Though inanimate, the cloth also introduces the human figure — not necessarily in shape, but conceptually — into the landscape. In “Co-Evolutionary," for example, a lace tablecloth hangs from the bare branches of a shrub, and looks like a standing person; in “Tainted by Desire,” a swirl of scarlet fabric against the ground spotted with desert grasses evokes a reclining one.
Basil Kincaid is as much about the fabrics as he is the photos. He lives in St. Louis but studied at Colorado College, and his photos offer poetic takes on identity, specifically African-American identity. The setting for “Birth by Fire” is a burnt-out husk of an urban house, where a male model is almost completely covered by a quilt. Kincaid sees quilts as harking back to his own ancestors, as well as referencing black folk-art traditions. The pieces of fabric in the quilt are gathered from sources in his neighborhood, as well as from people around the world with whom he connects on social media.
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Kincaid is also represented by an actual quilted wall sculpture, which might seem strange in a photo show. Some of the patterns on the fabrics that make up the piece have been printed with digital reproductions of photos, however, so there’s a connection. The patterns he creates are based on digital photos of his environment.
These three photographers are coming from totally different directions — Maharaj exploring her own psyche, Blake riffing on art history, and Kincaid exploring the African-American experience — so it's intriguing that they’ve created work with such closely aligned aesthetic sensibilities.
The abundance of photography shows in town right now serves as an ironic reminder of how few shows are dedicated to photography, the foundational medium of our time, the rest of the year. Fortunately, the Month of Photography extends well beyond its opening month, so there is still plenty to see.
Of Light & Wind, through April 13, Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-635-6255,
In the Fold, through May 4, Rule Gallery, 530 Santa Fe Drive, 303-800-6776, rulegallery.com