Close-up look at painting-like photographs

CRITIC'S CORNER

Art

November 16, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

By the end of the 19th century, photographers had begun thinking of their medium as one of the fine arts rather than simply as a skilled craft. But what kind of art was it?

Some compared photography to painting - the term literally means "drawing with light." If photography really was art, the reasoning went, then photographs should look like paintings.

The Pictorialist photography of the era, championed by such pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, sought to imitate the poetic, soft-focus look of late Impressionist and Symbolist painting. Thanks largely to their efforts, Pictorialism became history's first truly international photographic style.

Ted Leigh's color still-life photographs at Resurgam Gallery recall that history as well as the inevitable reaction against it. Since Stieglitz's day, the pendulum has swung away from Pictorialism to hard-edged, "straight" photography and back again many times.

Like a lot of photography's early practitioners, Leigh was a painter before taking up the camera. So perhaps it's not surprising that his photographs, which look just like abstract-expressionist canvases, have a distinctly "painterly" quality.

Technically, the images are collages of natural and man-made objects that the artist has assembled into compositions, then recorded on film with a camera attached to a studio light stand. (The day I visited the gallery, the light stand also happened to be there, which made the process easier to visualize.)

Leigh's images have everything you'd want in a good abstract-expressionist painting: tremendous vitality, energy, poise, balance and surprise, as well as a great sense of daring. As "pictures," they offer a quite satisfying visual experience.

Of course, we're long past the days when critics like the late Clement Greenberg could decree what "ambitious" art ought to look like based on certain supposedly "unique" qualities in each medium.

In today's pluralistic art world, artworks can look like anything, so in principle there's really no reason a photograph can't look like a painting and still be considered serious art.

Still, I found myself missing just that quality of camera images that painted ones lack: photography's uncanny psychological power to compel belief in the truthfulness of what is represented, no matter how unusual, unexpected or improbable.

Photography's powerful illusion of truthfulness is the quality that distinguishes it from all other visual arts; by contrast, a photograph that is made to look like a painting ends up by definition not looking like a photograph at all.

But perhaps this is part of Leigh's intention. By straddling the line between painting and photography, his pictures provoke just the sort of questions that lead one to inquire more deeply into the essential nature of art and images - clearly a legitimate function of an artwork, no matter what it looks like.

The show runs through Dec. 27. The gallery is at 910 S. Charles St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Call 410-962-0513.

At Montage Gallery

Across the street, Maxine Taylor is showing new paintings and mixed-media works at Montage Gallery.

Taylor switched from figurative to nonrepresentational abstraction a few years ago, shortly before her last Montage show, in 2003. Then, her abstractions reflected all the inspired inventiveness and zest of the newly converted.

Her current work is more consistent in quality than that of the earlier show, but it also seems somehow less urgent, albeit for interesting reasons.

Kandinsky, a pioneer of nonrepresentational art, thought the point of abstraction was communication on a higher spiritual level. "Color," he wrote, "directly influences the soul."

Yet I do not sense in Taylor's new works much growth in spiritual awareness from the last go-round. If it has occurred, it has not yet percolated into the painting, which seems somewhat mechanical and formalist, an art that is really more about other art than about life.

Of course, in the wider art world today that preoccupation with earlier artworks and artists is a very fashionable stance - and artists, after all, have to eat, too. Still, I wished these nicely crafted pieces had moved me more.

The gallery is at 925 S. Charles St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-725-1125.

See it now

Today is your last chance to see the current exhibit of Charles Ford's abstract paintings at Sub-Basement Artist Studios on Howard Street.

Done in the style of such modern masters as Picasso and Matisse, his exuberantly drawn paintings and works on paper - more than a dozen large paintings and another score of smaller works on paper - nearly fill the cavernous gallery.

Ford, a self-taught artist, is a skilled draftsman but he borrows many devices created by earlier modernist masters. With his obvious talents, he seems well-positioned to move on to works of his own invention.

Sub-Basement Artist Studios is in The Atrium at Market Center, 118 N. Howard St. Hours are by appointment only. Call the gallery at 410-659-6950.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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