State of the Arts: MERGE at Castell Photography

PHOTO FINISH: "Fireworks," by Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy of the artist and the collection of Allen Thomas Jr.
PHOTO FINISH: "Fireworks," by Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy of the artist and the collection of Allen Thomas Jr.

Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, Cunningham, Friedlander, Hugnet, Mann — together, these names read like a checklist from a MoMA photography exhibition. They just so happen to be among the more than two dozen artists featured in MERGE, on view through September at Asheville’s Castell Photography.

The exhibit places these renowned artists among an arsenal of vintage and contemporary photographs. Owner Brie Castell and gallery director Heidi Gruner have thematically paired works from the private acquisitions of three eminent East Coast collectors with corresponding (if not delineated) pieces by eight emerging, mid-career photographers. “Having these historical works here would be exciting for anybody,” says Gruner, adding that it’s “thrilling to have them bringing recognition to the contemporary artists.”

Each of these six cumulative bodies of work offers an alternative view into the breadth of the photographic medium, spanning from its adolescent years in the early 20th century into the present. The major pieces stem from the collections of W.M. Hunt of New York; Allen Thomas Jr. of Wilson, N.C.; and David Raymond, who recently moved to Asheville. Both Hunt and Thomas have juried past Castell exhibitions.

Raymond’s collection enlists the earliest pieces, with Lotte Gerson and Werner Rohde photos hailing from the early 1920s. Each harbors a sense of excitement over what was then a burgeoning medium, turning ordinary household objects — such as an umbrella, in Rohde’s case — into inquisitive and surreal figures.

It’s the inclusion of three works by Georges Hugnet that make up Raymond’s most significant contribution to MERGE. The dreamlike photo-collages meld with Castell’s longstanding love affair with manipulated photography. They’re shown with contemporary photographers Lauren Semivan (who stages furniture with antiquated props to create surreal images) and Stacey Page and Tom Butler (who have each embellished their prints with the likes of needle and thread and gouache). Page embroiders fanciful face masks on found photographs, most of which appear to be mid-century yearbook pictures. Some look like wrestling masks, while others seem religious and ceremonial. Butler makes similar use of vintage cabinet cards, a type of mass-marketed portrait popular in the late 1800s. He paints over heads and faces, covering some with paisley and flower-patterned head scarves and others with Cousin It-style hair extensions.

The works from Hunt’s collection make up the bulk of the show’s photographic masters, who, in this case, happen to direct their focus toward obscured figures. In “Spain,” an early Lee Friedlander image, the reflection-focused artist peers into a tattered, chipped and frameless wall mirror. His camera, as it appears in his work for decades to come, is partially visible near the mirror’s lowest edge. “The Dream (Veiled Woman),” an apparitionlike portrait by Imogen Cunningham, and “Martinique,” a split-view of a figure against the ocean by André Kertész, both add to the show’s surrealist undercurrent.

These studies are shown alongside pieces by Aspen Hochhalter and Amy Friend, two contemporaries who have similarly cloaked their subjects. Hochhalter’s images require viewers to look through a series of magnifying glasses. Each of these six view-finders is perched in front of a miniature portrait rendered from gum bichromate and hair, only visible on close inspection.

The artists in Thomas’s collection take a direct, and at times psychologically dark, approach to revealing their subjects. “Drag,” a large-scale portrait by Jeff Bark, features a nude man smoking on his bed — perfectly positioned to greet you at the bottom of Castell’s staircase. In “Daddy Tattoo,” a neighboring work by Zoe Strauss, a solitary female is front and center. From a distance she’s got an air of glamour, but closer inspection reveals this makeup-caked damsel’s apparent distress: fresh scars on her elbow, dirty hands and clothes, wind-swept hair and a series of questionable markings on her wrist.

And then there’s Sally Mann — famous for panoramas that depict decay and death — represented by two works from her mid-1990s “Motherland Series.” These 30-by-48-inch haunted landscapes, though entirely modern, hurl viewers into 19th century countryside views of Virginia, Mann’s native state.

Thomas’s collection is accompanied by smaller-scale images by Christine Zuercher, Charlie Rubin and Ben Alper, who each continue the trend of photo manipulation. Works from Alper’s “Background Noise” series also add to the psychological undertones present in those by Strauss and Bark. One in particular, “Background Noise #12,” contains a mirror image of a young man, as if seen through shimmering water. Between his two divided selves is a blinding prismatic light — a subject and medium torn from itself.

If MERGE seems provocative, that’s intentional. The exhibition is not only about the masterworks — as few are for sale — but to draw parallels and “promote and encourage the purchase of lesser-known but accomplished and vastly talented contemporary artists.” One of Raymond’s goals in moving to Asheville was to help establish a collecting community. He says, “Hopefully this show will inspire others.”

View MERGE through September at Castell Photography. castellphotographygallery.com

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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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