It is - and isn't - there in black and white

October 13, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Ralph Gibson's resonant photographic diptychs are fascinating in their mysteries and possibilities. His show "Overtones" at UMBC's Kuhn gallery consists entirely of black and white photographic pairs that may seem at first to have little to do with one another. But because they offer no easy answers, they're open to almost endless interpretation, so they keep the viewer alert and curious.

One of these untitled pairs shows, in the left photo, a man's shirt, tie and jacket as background to a pudgy hand with bitten-down fingernails and a big ring on one finger. The right photo shows a man's hat in a pool of light with a dark, shadowed space above it.

Possibly the hat, which looks like a cheap number, belongs to nTC the man with the pudgy hand. If so, this pair of photos may be saying that a man with a hand like that would have a hat like that. But maybe not. Maybe this pair's really about light and dark, the light hat against the dark background and the white hand against the dark jacket. Or maybe it's about space; the space in the right picture is not as clearly defined as it is in the left one.

Gibson, now in his late 50s, has long worked in sequences or series and is best-known for his long sequences published as books. Now he has turned to the diptych format, and the 40 pairings here add up to a show that never grows predictable or repetitive.

Here we have a tree next to a man's face. Nearby is a woman's back with long hair trailing down it next to a series of wooden boards placed at right angles to one another. Elsewhere is a section of street next to the side of a box with a hole in it.

These intriguing photographic juxtapositions are not puzzles to be solved, with meanings that the artist put there and that we're supposed to discover. They have no specific messages, and Gibson provides them with no titles or texts to help us "understand" them. Their deliberate ambiguity allows each individual consciousness to play upon them as it will.

One pair shows a woman wearing an old-fashioned hat with a veil next to a metal wall. It's easy to say that a veil may be a psychological wall to keep others out. But as one who's old enough to remember when women wore hats with veils, I think of the veil as romantic and alluring, something that attracts rather than repels. So to me the photos are opposites, not complements. Someone of another generation might see them quite differently.

A photo of a female sculpture with raised arm hangs next to one of a tablet with Greek lettering on it. The tablet is broken in such a way that the part that's missing echoes the raised arm. This void also looks like the stylized forepart of a horse or dog. The whole thing might say something different to someone who can read the Greek.

What we don't need here are the 17 wall texts by various writers commenting on Gibson's work. It's as well to ignore them, for the work is thoroughly self-sufficient, and the texts act as distractions, not additions.

Art review

L What: "Overtones (Diptychs and Proportions)" by Ralph Gibson

Where: Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle

When: Noon to 4: 30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays), 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; through Dec. 13. Gibson will lecture on his work Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the gallery

Call: 410-455-2270

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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