Looking at The Human Condition

There is a picture for everything, it seems. Photography is ubiquitous, which may be the reason why a lot of people have a hard time regarding it as a true art form. Rough estimations figure that the average person takes around five photographs each day; it’s impossible to determine how many pictures a person sees daily, but this newspaper alone contains at least 29.

In spite of all this, fine-art photography has been having its heyday in the art world with artists like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano popularizing the trend. Asheville, however, continues to lack contemporary photographic representation in its commercial galleries — often the medium is limited to landscapes and nudes.

Enter Brie Castell, a fine-arts photographer and owner of Castell Photography, located on Wilson Alley (off Eagle Street) in downtown Asheville. Since April 2009, Castell has been exhibiting primarily national and international artists on the chic black walls of its handsome mezzanine gallery space. “Our mission is to show Western North Carolina the scope and variety of photography,” says Castell, defending her position to limit the exhibition of local photographers. “You learn by seeing what the rest of the world is doing,” she says.

This month Castell offers a rare treat to Asheville photography aficionados: a juried exhibition of contemporary art photography culled from local and international entrants. Dianna Stoll, an Asheville resident and senior editor for the renowned magazine Aperture, juried the show, selecting 55 works by 22 artists.

A wide variety of photographic processes are on display that range from portraiture to narrative; all are united under a common theme: the human condition. “I wanted to keep the topic wide open,” says Castell, whose call to artists yielded roughly 85 applicants from as far away as Australia. “Basically any photo could be about the human condition — it’s the human condition to just pick up a camera and want to turn things into art.”

The black-and-white photographs of Rebecca Drolen, winner of the juror’s choice award, tell humorous stories that are easy to relate to: In one, a woman stands posed with a frying pan, prepared to strike a creature that crawls beneath her carpet. In another, she is diving headfirst into a hole — Alice-in-Wonderland style.

“Portrait of Mom and Dad” by Kristen Skees is a darkly comical depiction of a middle-class couple and their cat. Behind them emanates the warm glow of a fire off their flat-screen TV. They each wear a snug fitting “cozy” that tightly covers their heads and bodies, sans armholes. They are comfortably protected and restrained from each other and the outside world. Skees, it turns out, custom knits the sweaters for her subjects.

Local artist Miranda Maynard invites the viewer to stare at a disheveled young woman drunkenly passed out, surrounded by a haze of glitter. In another of Maynard’s photos, a girl tightly binds her bare feet with a satin ribbon. The images are disarming and magnify roles of exhibitionism and voyeurism.

“Celebration of Summer,” an oversized cyanotype by Asheville artist Jay Engelbach, breaks up the space of the gallery as it descends down from the rafters and piles easily onto the floor. Cyanotype prints look like an X-rays, so the figures and paraphernalia represented in the work look like giant embryonic angels.

A metaphoric element of the human condition is represented in Katarin A. Parizek’s “Sludge” series. A micro lens captures all the minute details of a toxic sludge puddle and magnifies them. Bright green, blue and orange bubbles appear as gems embedded within brown swirls of mire. At this close range the sludge is effervescent — beautiful even.

Other highlights of the exhibit include: The intensely contrasted black-and-white portraits of Kurt Weston who, it turns out, is legally blind; the albumin-processed Skin photo of June Yong Lee printed onto mulberry paper; and the portraits of a terminally ill woman by Elizabeth Clafferty. 

There is a lot to look at and contemplate with The Human Condition. As Stoll so eloquently writes in her juror’s statement: “Each viewer, of course, brings an unduplicated set of experiences to this table; each viewer will thus see a unique show.”

— Ursula Gullow writes about art for Mountain Xpress and her blog, artseenasheville.blogspot.com.

what: The Human Condition
where: Castell Photography, 2C Wilson Alley off Market Street in downtown Asheville
when: Through Nov. 27 (Gallery is open Wednesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. 255-1188.

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