Exhibits expose the theories of memory, art

Pictures: Two recent shows used photographs to investigate the concepts.

Fine arts

April 10, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The invention of photography in 1839 was such an astonishment that people resorted to metaphors to describe the new medium.

They called the early daguerreotype "the mirror with a memory," and ever since, the twin ideas of reflection and remembrance have shaped the way we think about photographs. Much of 20th-century photography has been inspired by the mirror part of the metaphor - the idea that a photograph is a duplicate of the real world produced by objective laws of optics and chemistry.

Yet the idea of remembrance was never entirely cast aside. In an intriguing 1975 book, "Camera Lucida," the philosopher Roland Barthes argued that the only "real" thing about a photograph is the fact that it depicts things that once belonged to the present, and that are now part of the past. For Barthes, a photograph was a sign pointing to an absence, an image whose subjective meaning always referred to a particular time and place that has been irretrievably lost.

His ideas have influenced a new generation of postmodern photographers, who reject the objective biases of Modernism and who often are more concerned with evoking the past than describing the present. This month saw two Baltimore shows by artists who have developed uniquely personal strategies for using photographs to elicit ideas of memory and loss:

At Grimaldis Gallery, Cuban-born photographer Jose Manuel Fors presents a series of collages, some quite large in scale, constructed out of antique family photographs, old documents and other personal mementos. Many images have been sepia-toned and distressed to give them the brown, faded patina of pictures that have stoically endured the ravages of time and neglect.

Fors arranges his images in grids, circles and layered bundles wrapped like newspapers that suggest the past is an inexhaustible mosaic of memories whose patterns eternally repeat.

The show runs through April 28. Hours at the gallery, 523 N. Charles St., are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and by appointment. Call 410-539-1080. (And while you're there, you also might enjoy a group show of prints that includes works by Elaine and Willem de Kooning.)

Earlier this month, Linda Ingraham exhibited a series of large black-and-white photographs that implicitly enshrine the act of remembrance at Gomez Gallery, 3600 Clipper Mill Road.

Ingraham couples her moody landscape and sky pictures with found objects associated with each photograph. For instance, a single feather is mounted inside a tiny frame, at the bottom of an image of a solitary bird soaring beneath the clouds.

Like Fors, Ingraham manipulates the surface of her prints to give them the sepia-toned look of old photographs. But her pictures have an impeccable, high-tech sheen that suggests that these memories, at least, are still as fresh and bright as events witnessed only yesterday.

Pictures and objects are both encased in elaborate frames of polished wood that give them something of the aura of a religious icon or church altarpiece. Perhaps the artists means to suggest the preciousness of remembered experience, as well as her fiercely protective feelings toward it.

The show closed April 8.

Paper fate

The ancient Egyptians invented papyrus for writing, and the Chinese gave the world paper to scribble on. For most of history, both media have been defined by their utility as record-keeping tools, but in the last three decades, a few adventurous souls have taken up paper-making as an independent art.

It's perhaps an unwritten cultural law that whenever a medium outlives its practical usefulness, it gets turned into an art form. Such was the case with magazine photography after the demise of the great picture magazines. And so it may be with paper as we enter the digital age.

In that case, the delicate, handmade paper collages, vessels and other objects created by local artist Leslie Haas may well be a harbinger of the future.

Haas, whose work is on display through April 27 at the Space Telescope Institute on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, collects her own raw fibers, many from exotic African and Asian plants, then painstakingly fashions them into the unique paper products she uses in her constructions.

The STI is at 3700 San Martin Drive. The institute is open seven days a week, but to see the artwork you must call for an appointment at 410-338-4700.

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