Remarkable look at the East Art review: Not so fast! Look again: Photographs by Lois Conner slowly reveal the Oriental attitude toward the world and time.

March 30, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Lois Conner's photographs of Asia creep up on you. At first, the show of them now at Goucher looks unremarkable, even boring. But then you begin to get the point, and they reveal themselves to be remarkable, individually and as a group.

Conner, associate professor of photography at Yale, has photographed in Asia for more than a decade -- primarily in China, but also Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere. She uses a large format camera that takes elongated images, and prints her black-and-white photographs in a platinum-palladium process that gives a grayer, subtler effect than the sharp contrasts of the usual silver gelatin process.

Thus at first encounter these works look all the same: all the same size, all the same tone -- monotonous, in a word. Furthermore, Conner for the most part eschews grandly impressive sights -- no Great Wall for her -- in favor of the ordinary street, the unremarkable landscape, the frankly mundane. What, we wonder at first, is going on here?

But the more you look at Conner's pictures the more they mean. It turns out that details don't get lost in the overall grayness of the image, but show up better than in a high contrast image that emphasizes one thing over another. Here, once you get into the leisurely rhythm of looking that these pictures demand, your eye wanders across the image slowly, taking it in bit by bit. And a larger message gradually makes itself known through these individual pictures.

Through suggestion and implication, Conner records an attitude toward the world so different from the Western embrace of newness and the constant obliteration of the past by the present. Instead, we begin to understand a consciousness in which the particular moment -- meaning the particular age or life -- is subsumed in the continuum of history and the timeless presence of the land.

There are modern buildings in numerous works, but usually they seem totally temporary in the context of the picture's implications. In "Die Cai Shan, Giulin, Guangxi, China" (1985), one can glimpse bits and pieces of a city of considerable size peeking out from the mountains that spread across the image. But the clusters of modern buildings look like toys set down in the grandeur of this landscape, and we understand that they represent but a wink of time against the ageless mountains.

In "Yangshuo, Guangxi, China" (1986), on the other hand, the rural houses in the foreground look far more permanent because they echo the landscape itself; the mountains to be glimpsed in the right rear tell us that.

In "Minh Mang Tomb, Hue, Vietnam" (1994), the viewer stands in a courtyard and looks through a doorway to the right toward another doorway farther away and yet another, and it's obvious that in learning about such a civilization there are never-ending doors to be opened. Similarly, in "Beihai Yuan, Beijing, China" (1984) the steps that lead from the courtyard disappear into a succession of spaces whose roofs suggest the layerings of history.

Only in her two photographs of Hong Kong, ruled so long by Westerners, does Conner suggest that buildings are taking over from and obliterating the landscape.

Conner's depth of commitment, and her depth of understanding, are everywhere evident.

Asian views

What: "Landscape as Culture: Photographs of Asia by Lois Conner"

Where: Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, evening and weekend hours during events in Kraushaar auditorium; through April 26

Call: (410) 337-6333

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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