Gray areas hold the power in Becher photographs

April 14, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographs of industrial buildings have achieved almost legendary status worldwide. These stark pictures of often abandoned buildings can most obviously be seen as a tribute to the industrial age now largely behind us. But to confine their relevance to industry would be a little like saying an impressionist painting of a meadow is about agriculture.

It is tempting to call them black and white photographs, but there is very little black or white in them. The Bechers deliberately shoot on cloudy days rather than in sunlight, so these works become studies in almost infinite shadings of gray.

And like these layerings of gray on gray, the Bechers' pictures possess a layered and nuanced sense of summation; they recall the past in multiple ways, and not least the past of art. A group of works in the current Becher show at Grimaldis makes that point especially well. Unlike the more usual Becher pictures of closed surfaces seen from the outside, these are relative closeups of open blast furnace towers with their many levels and their complicated groupings of pipes, beams, walkways, stairways and railings, pierced by an occasional shaft of light.

In their combinations of triangles within triangles, curvilinear and straight line elements, and planes intersecting planes, they suggest geometric abstraction.

In their eerie, uninhabited quiet, the unfamiliarity of their territories, and their vague sense of menace, they recall the proto-surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

In their use of an industrial visual language to achieve abstract design while retaining recognizable subject matter, they are strongly reminiscent of the precisionist paintings of such artists as Ralston Crawford and Charles Sheeler, themselves indebted to the cubists.

And these multi-level structures with their complex interactions of spaces reach farther back in time as well, to recall the fantastic architectural interiors of Piranesi's prisons.

But for all their parallels with non-photographic art, these pictures retain the undeniability of the photograph as document.

And in that lies their larger meaning and their emotional power, for they document much more than the death of the industrial age. In the vastness of their implied scale and in the somberness of their mood they suggest the twilight of the age of order and the values on which order is built.

They speak of an aged integrity on the brink of annihilation, an anachronistic rectitude making a last stand, feeble but unbending, in the face of chaos.

PHOTO EXHIBIT

What: "Bernd & Hilla Becher Industrial Buildings"

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through April 29

Call: (410) 539-1080

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