Photos show us what we miss if we can't see -- or don't

January 29, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

A window screen lying on the sidewalk, or a pipe jutting out across a pathway, or sudsy water flowing out of a drainpipe and across the street in front of us, are things we hardly notice as we make our way on foot from place to place. We make the mental adjustment and step over or around, while most of our mind is concentrated elsewhere.

Ah, but if we were blind! Then such things could be hazards to life and limb, as Gary Cawood teaches us in "Obstacles," one of his series of photographs on view at Goucher College. Cawood, who lives and works in Arkansas, takes in what other people don't notice, and through his work makes other people notice. The results are admirable in intent but uneven in realization.

For "Obstacles" he blindfolded himself and walked with a cane, learning a little about what it's like to try to navigate without sight. Then he took pictures of some of the things one wouldn't see, from a pile of sand to a sign that tells you this side of the street is closed, use the other. As consciousness raisers to us all, these are socially useful photographs.

Cawood has two other groups here: one taken in museums, where again he focuses on things the average museum-goer will overlook; and one of exteriors and interiors shot in Arkansas towns.

The museum photos can be silly. In "Academy of Natural Science, Philadelphia" (1992) there's a mural of extinct birds and an "Exit" sign. Big deal. Better the straightforward photograph of the bedroom of the Babe Ruth House in "Baltimore, Maryland" (1992), which doesn't have a punch line and doesn't need one.

The town pictures are the most satisfying group here, in their combination of formal properties with social comment, and their occasional use of window reflections to emphasize a point or play around with space. "Hot Springs, Arkansas" (1992), showing a classical bust against a mundane street scene, speaks of the persistence -- or perhaps the persistent ignoring -- of aesthetic ideals.

"North Little Rock Elks Club" (1992) is both an abstract study of planes intersecting at various angles and an evocation of middle America, especially effective because there's no one in the room. "Batesville, Arkansas" (no date), the most handsome of all Cawood's photographs, makes a geometric abstraction of a bare room occupied only by a radiator and some pipes.

"Little Rock, Arkansas" (1990) shows the interior of a perfectly ordinary room with some Christmas lights on a tree, while vaguely reflected in the front store window is a scene of trees and sky which, if we could see it more clearly, might be beautiful. The point I take from this photograph is that Americans, unable to see the beauty that surrounds them, replace it with the ugly. But that kind of Menckenian criticism goes against the tone of most of these works, so perhaps Cawood means something else altogether. At any rate this, like some but not all of the other works here, makes you stop and think.

Gary Cawood Photographs

Where: Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College, Dulaney Valley Road, Towson.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and weekends when there is a program in Kraushaar Auditorium.

@Call: (410) 337-6116.

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