Displaying photography together with painting and sculpture has often proved a risky endeavor for galleries, but Where’s the Art?, a new show at Asheville’s Zone one contemporary gallery, deliberately lights the fuse, forcing works in these often-warring media to exist side by side.
The show, insist co-presenters Connie Bostic (a painter, as well as the gallery’s owner) and Paul Jeremias (a photographer), is by no means an attempt to champion one medium over another. Their decision to force the issue was made with the volatile innocence of kids playing with matches: They’re not angling for an inferno; they merely want to see what will happen.
Even the show’s exhibitors have reacted to the idea with everything from avid approval to cool doubt. Ben Porter, a well-traveled photographer who now runs the photography program at McDowell Technical College, urges perspective: “The idea is not new,” he points out. “Photography has only really been accepted [as an art form] in the last 20 years, [but] since photography ‘came out,’ it’s been a natural to compare it to painting.”
Porter’s own work literally stretches the boundaries of the medium. Inspired by the long, panoramic cityscapes of turn-of-the-century Asheville photographer Herbert Pelton, Porter employs the same mural-like format to portray the edgy interaction of crowds.
His “Fiesta of Virgin de Copacabana” captures a mounting swell of passion that could be joy or violence. The wary glint in one festivalgoer’s eye, and the defensive tilt of another’s head, all warn of an impending event that’s impatient to eclipse the picture’s current status with a climax that’s impossible to forecast. Porter’s rendering of an old Jewish cemetery, hung just below the crowd photos, contains this same dynamic. No humans appear in the work, but the combatively decaying headstones seem clustered with a smoldering resentment.
These uneasy images take time to absorb — not surprisingly, considering their lengthy genesis. To recreate Pelton’s style — that continuous vista which Porter says amazes people because “they can’t believe that it’s not a series of images spliced together,” he had to find an actual 1920s-era Cirkut camera, like the one Pelton used. In its day, the Cirkut was used for large, still group photos and other stable, wide-angle scenes. Porter’s works, on the other hand, are about the capture of energy. But the actual process of taking the pictures hasn’t gotten any quicker — a fact in which the artist takes a kind of perverse pride.
“The camera sits on a tripod, and it’s a pain in the butt to set up. Setting it up is definitely not spontaneous,” he says with a laugh. “I’m using it in a way it wasn’t designed for.”
The images in Margaret Curtis’ work are as vividly identifiable as those in photographs, but it’s the breathless nudge of memory that provokes the recognition in these paintings.
Her palette is carefully opaque, with just enough matte gray to turn the paintings’ childlike, sherbet hues threatening. “I wanted that body of work to be very girly and feminine — but with an aggressively sweet edge,” says the Atlanta College of Art graduate. “I was thinking a lot about girlhood, and I can’t say I feel entirely comfortable with parts of being a girl in this culture. Autobiographical [elements] play a role in the paintings, but it’s nothing explicit, nothing an outsider could ever decode.”
You definitely don’t have to know Curtis, though, to feel the chilly hilarity of “See-Saw,” in which a smiling blond pixie’s fruit-wreathed face glows a frightening pink (picture the Sunbeam bread girl with dubious intentions).
Her “Ring Around the Rosy” recalls that subliminally sinister childhood game that crops up in TV movies — just at the point where a child either dies or turns evil. About the nipple-like nucleus around which little girls skip, Curtis explains: “I was [using] the nipple as a cultural symbol. I wanted it to be very milky, a specific rendering, but also blurred, as if [dragged] through the paint.”
In a further attempt to display the divergent ways painting, sculpture and photography can broadcast similar motifs, Bostic has tried to unify the exhibit thematically, linking the works via categories such as nudes, classical and natural subjects, love, suffering, technology and landscapes. But the lines drawn here seem distinctly out-of-focus.
Lisa Morphew’s photographs, for example — many of them startling nudes of her elderly mother — fit with arresting force into every category but the last two. On the other hand, Rob Amberg’s portraits of the current Madison County I-26 construction — tearing roughshod through centuries-old family farms and graveyards alike — create a fused niche that might be titled “suffering landscapes.” And attempting to classify Alice Sebrell’s surreal sculpture/collage “Red Fox” — a defiantly earless creature (with wheels for back legs) that appears to have rolled in from the year 2010 to testify to about the apocalypse — is clearly mission impossible.
And then there are Elma Johnson’s lovingly sculpted “Grey Babies” — their bodies swaddled and inert, their faces desperately alive. The former UNCA ceramics teacher, recently retired after 24 years, recalls the tragic impetus behind the work: “[The sculptures] are based on a TV show I saw about four adults, two boys and two girls, who had been emotionally, physically and sexually abused by their father. As adults, they were telling what those years were like; [how they were] neglected, ignored, the hell they went through. He made them live in the basement.”
A former neighbor interviewed for the program provided a channel for Johnson’s inspiration: “She said, ‘They were gray … their hair, their skin, their personalities — everything,'” Johnson recounts.
The babies on display at Zone one, though, comprise but a fraction of Johnson’s 42-member battalion. While continually surprised that the individual babies actually sell, the artist has come to acknowledge their mysterious power. “Some people like them, and some are afraid,” she muses. “People have sat for hours [looking] at them and crying. It scares even me.”
Like Johnson’s babies, Dana Moore’s delightfully altered photographs of turn-of-the-century men, women and children exude a peculiar life. But her “family,” though equally extraordinary, is newer, and she’s reluctant to split them up. “I don’t see them singly: I want the [collective pieces] to look like people at a party together,” Moore explains.
And what a party it is, spawned by the artist’s irreverent imagination. There’s the serene matron, whose naked breasts glow inside her bodice as if lit by X-ray vision; a baby whose round head segues into an impish crown; and the show-stopping centerpiece, a dapper teenage boy whose smug smile attests his superiority to the rest — helped, naturally, by the intricately coiled cerebrum of his artfully drawn-in brain.
“I was in the habit of working on the surface of photos, so I started erasing [the old pictures] with pencil and drawing in [the changes],” Moore explains. “I explored all kinds of different tools and kept coming back to #2 pencils.”
It was not her intent to deface or belittle these stalwart guinea pigs — on the contrary, it was their very defenselessness that drove Moore to execute her singular brand of rescue. “I had sympathy for the photographs and for the people in the photographs,” she says. “I would find these old pictures in flea markets, and they looked so abandoned. I wanted to give them a new life.”
There’s nothing frivolous about about the forms of this new life, either — we’re not talking about a mustache on the Mona Lisa, here. “The photos are about different things,” says Moore. “I live with them until something suggests itself to me. The woman with exposed breasts is [about] the hidden life behind the severity that old photos give [out to] people.”
Moore isn’t sure how she feels about the concept of willfully colliding photography with other art forms, for public dissection; she’s saving her definitive opinion until she’s had a chance to view the whole show.
“It’s an unusual idea,” she concedes. “But in any kind of [formal showcase], placing things next to each other suggests that something for [each form] isn’t necessarily true.”
Something tells me the boy with the posthumously bared brain aches to agree.