Picture this

Of all days to visit the Asheville Art Museum, I choose field-trip day. Winding my way through a wobbly line of third graders, I head into the museum’s inner depths in search of its current exhibit, Making Pictures: Contemporary American Photography.

But by the time I reach the museum’s third floor, the kids’ real-life merriment has dissipated, and I am alone with a somber security guard and the works of 13 contemporary photographers. Where to begin? The modern and yet-more-modern art lines the well-lit walls, each artist expressing a new idea, a unique style. The exhibit’s introductory overview remarks, in part, that many of the exhibited artists “reinterpret various types of photographic conventions to comment on contemporary issues. … Three of the artists use traditions of portraiture in different forms.”

Kathleen Campbell’s “Angel of Earth, 1996″ vigorously substantiates this claim. The photo shows a Madonna figure surrounded by bottle tops and banana peels. Well known for her allegorical portraits, Campbell borrows inspiration from such 19th-century photographers as Margaret Cameron — though Campbell’s style also incorporates collage, hand-coloring, and other decidedly 20th-century techniques.

Blythe Bohnen approaches the genre from a more intimate angle, using her own face as subject. Her series of five photographs depicting a set of defined movements of the head during a timed exposure results in a rather alien environment: “Ghost-images,” while not pretty, hints at inner demons that take the work beyond the scope of traditional portraiture.

Like Campbell, Caroline Vaughan uses subjects other than herself to realize her vision. At first glance, her three displayed works remarkably resemble “American Gothic”: Each shows a posed couple, holding small props that represent their lives. The first couple, solemn elderly and composed, is identified by the title as “My Parents William and Mary Vaughan of Durham.” The next work likewise features a man and woman — but he is bearded and wild, and she garbed in eccentric, Renaissance-fair-type attire. This arresting work bears the breathless name “My Former Neighbors on Ward Street in Durham who are in a Rock Band, Tara and Tom.”

Finally, we have “Rick and Rick, Two Young Professional Men, One Who Works for a Drag Company and the Other Who is a Physician,” featuring the latter Rick with his stethoscope draped rakishly over his shoulder. Like all of Vaughan’s subjects, both men look directly at the camera, their eyes imparting something deeply personal.

A more vociferous display chatters from a television aross the room: William Wegman’s “The Selected Video Works 1970-1978.” Wegman is best known for his photographs of Weimaraner dogs, often in wigs and dresses. Moving on to more peaceful waters, I encounter a Japanesey print by Mike and Doug Starn titled “Blot Out the Sun” — a well-textured combination of old and new in which the image of a bare, black-branched tree becomes more jagged and forboding through layers of wax.

At this point, I realize that the only place to sit and properly ponder these works is the single bench occupied by the security guard. Maybe one is supposed to view contemporary photography while standing. That certainly seems appropriate in the case of Sandy Skoglund, at any rate. Her piece “Breeze at Work” is made to be seen in many ways; I tilt my head and examine the work’s odd angles. A typical office scene is made eerie by the intrusion of trees and leaves blowing through, as if from a storm; like its companion pieces, the compositions is heavily red and blue. The color, thick as tempera, covers everything in a surreal uniformity; human figures remain in the back corner, while the stormy natural elements command the foreground.

Featured beside Skoglund’s work are the photographs of James Casebere, an artist whose images comment on the loss of privacy in society. In sharp contrast to Skoglund’s overwhelming scenes, Casebere’s works are bare and spacious, using light, line and a wholesale hollowness to evoke mood.

Jim Dine’s and Richard Ramsdell’s more minimalist works involve digital manipulation. Ramsdell plays with found images, creating surreal scenes with vaguely familiar forms, while Dine juxtaposes differing elements and prints them on canvas, using a ink-jet printer.

Lastly, I study a series of six prints by John Pfahl, a landscape photographer from upstate New York. At first, they don’t appear to be related at all. Three examine Niagara falls — the massive surge of water, the beautiful curve of the Horseshoe falls, the detail of a frozen cascade. The clean natural imagery clashes sharply, at first, with the next three photographs, which picture a dump. But soon, the centrally represented sea of tires — undulating across a green field and, beyond the line of vision, mounded under a yellow tarp, as if restrained from their instinct toward motion — spark a connection with the flow of water in the falls photos. Amid the wildly experimental artwork showcased elsewhere in the exhibit, I take an appreciative comfort in Pfahl’s idiosyncratic but simple imagery.

Lost and found

Two days later, I find the Baden/Mann exhibit at Semi-Public, a small, cutting-edge gallery on Hillside Street. No herds of school children here, no security guard — and still no bench, it must be noted. But the place is inviting, with an open door and a friendly proprietor.

The show itself is an oddly juxtaposed selection of the works of two local artists, Eric Baden and Steve Mann. Mann’s photographs — taken at a gospel gathering — are in the gallery’s front section, displayed on the white walls opposite a picture window overlooking the street. The artist’s comments on group interaction work best in those photos where a central figure is brought to the viewer’s attention. In one, a woman dressed in white and wearing a shower cap wields a washboard. Her blurred hand implies movement; one realizes she is playing it as an instrument. But the rest of her remains perfectly still, expressing extreme composure. The print’s combination of motion and repose is arresting, amid the other crowd images.

I move to the rear of the gallery, where Baden’s work hangs. Here it’s shady, with the walls painted black. Jazz floats in, completing the aura. Baden’s black-and-white prints present faces from many perspectives. Each work is singular, though most of the subjects have a similar, far-away look. Rarely do their eyes focus on the photographer (or, by extension, on the viewer); instead, the pictures’ focal points lie in facial lines and features, even outright peculiarities. One headshot, taken from behind, examines a star-shaped tattoo covering the model’s shaved crown. My favorite, a young girl floating on her back, possesses equal amounts symmetry and mystery. Partly submerged in water, she reclines, arms framing her face. Her eyes, though directed vaguely toward the photographer, seem more intent on her private musings. I point this out to the proprietor, who comments, “Well, of course, that’s his daughter.”

In a matter of minutes, I’d developed an alliance of sorts with the subject — and relinquishing her to reality is a bit of a disappointment.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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