Finding the abstract in concrete images

Photographer Lorna Bieber creates something new by removing subjects from their contexts

Art Review

May 20, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Fuzzy magazine illustrations of nesting birds and Alaskan sled dogs might not seem like promising subjects for ambitious art, but Lorna Bieber's mural-scale black-and-white photographs at C. Grimaldis Gallery endow these banal images with a mysterious aura of arrested meaning.

Bieber, who started her career as a painter, is interested in a classic minimalist strategy: How much can you take out of a picture and still have an image that signifies something?

In a painting, the ultimate expression of minimalism is an all-white or all-black canvas (or any other monochrome hue, for that matter). Think of Russian Constructivism in the 1920s or Frank Stella's all-black paintings in the 1960s. In sculpture, think Donald Judd's spare aluminum boxes of the 1960s.

Photography, though, by its nature resists such reductionism. A photograph that isn't of something isn't really a photograph at all.

The elements of a painting theoretically can be reduced to just its pigments on a flat support -- paper, canvas, etc. That was the view, at least, of the great modernist critic Clement Greenberg. Similarly, sculpture can be boiled down to a bare-bones geometric abstraction, like Judd's.

But the irreducible kernel of a photograph is always an image of the world. It's as basic to the essential character of a photograph as a reflection is to a mirror.

Bieber attacks the minimalist problem in photography by manipulating commonplace images, such as birds, dogs and trees, that she finds in old magazines and newspapers. Then she re-photographs them on a grandiose scale that completely obliterates whatever meaning their original context might have given them.

In effect, she severs the images' connection to the world they were meant to signify, taking everything out of her photographs that can be taken out and still have them called photographs. At least, that's the theory.

In practice, though, the mind stubbornly insists on seeing an image of the world that it recognizes.

We may eventually figure out that Bieber's oversize birds, dogs and trees are, in fact, mere abstract signs that point to nothing except their own character as signifiers. But we still want to read the images as a real bird or dog.

Bieber's photographs seem to oscillate in the uneasy space between these two quite human impulses, which perhaps accounts for their uncanny confusion of the real and unreal.

A companion exhibition of drawings presents works by gallery artists Raoul Middleman, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Anthony Caro, Hsin-Hsi Chen and Rene Trevino.

Both shows run through June 9 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or go to cgrimaldisgallery.com.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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