Review: ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I had Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery to myself. Between the FestiFools events and the arrival of the first real spring-like weather of the season, it was a perfect quiet time to take in some new art. I was at the gallery to see ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography—and I could view it at my own pace and in a space that allowed me freedom to see the work up close and from far away.
In hindsight, it was serendipitous that I was there on Eadward Muybridge’s birthday. Born almost 200 years ago, he was a pioneer in photography and used technology in new and exciting ways— perhaps most famously for using still photography to capture and convey motion and to reveal hidden realities.
Photography is the focus of this exhibit, juried by Wayne State University photography instructor Millie Tibbs, but many of the artists featured have combined traditional photography with other techniques, creating abstractions that conceal the methods with which they were made. These artists explore and overlay techniques, experiment with texture and color, and use visual elements that shift the scale in the mind of the viewer.
Maybe it’s my background in landscape architecture, but I was particularly intrigued by two pieces by photographer and U-M professor Seder Burns. Both "Suburban Camouflage Detection" #5 and #7 convey a sense of artificiality. The tree canopy shifted to an otherworldly red—conveying a sense that there is something inherently wrong. In "Suburban Camouflage Detection #7" (which was awarded second place in this exhibit), cookie-cutter beige architecture is organized in a relentless pattern in a space between water towers and a playground. Though this is entirely a man-made landscape, there are no humans to be seen, leaving the viewer with an uneasy feeling.
"DreamStart", a photograph by Horace Kerr II, appears from a distance as an alien industrial landscape or an experiment in postmodern architecture. The color palette of sickening orange and fluorescent green jumps off the wall and recalls imagery from a 1960s science fiction film. These colors draw the viewer closer to investigate. Only when seen at close range do the assembled objects in the photograph become clear in an unusual still life of a fluffy pillow and an upright egg.
John Sanderson’s "Perspectives (Interior and Exterior)" was named Best in Show for this photograph of a country road framed by an opening of trees and overlain with a smaller instant photograph of the interior of a bowling alley. The two images together in one composition contrast one another in a way that is at once jarring and harmonious. Though the perspective is the same, the photograph of the road reaches from darkness into light and the bowling alley transitions from light into darkness.
Brittany Denham’s "Western Vestige" is a striking composition that at first appears as though it is a piece of glitch art. Upon closer inspection, it is actually composed through the careful selection and placement of fragments from other landscape photographs. Using just the right colors and textures, Denham has invented a wholly new landscape that evokes the long views and big sky of the Great Plains.
Dean Kessmann’s "Details #1-6 (Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth)" is a series of inkjet prints, created in the spirit of his works of “Utilitarian Abstraction.” The viewer is confronted with six identical bold shapes of overlapping rough circles of primary colors with a large black organic shape at the center. When viewed closely, the edges are blurred and undefined. This work recalls aspects of the Color Field Movement in the work of Louis Morris or Helen Frankenthaler. Yet the use of primary colors also feels very much like Pop Art—especially when the viewer realizes that this particular pattern of colors has been dramatically enlarged from the printer’s marks on a label from Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth, made clear by the name of the work.
The bold simplicity of Steven Edson’s "Road Paint" is striking. The highly-textured black and white shapes are well balanced in their imperfection. The photograph recalls the work of abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell and his use of oversize black and white strokes. Again, closer investigation is required to fully grasp that this not a painting, but an image that captures roads and their markings as infrastructure.
The variety of scale, subject, and point of view in this exhibit and the ways in which the artists push the boundaries of a traditional medium, made the viewing this show an experience beyond what might be expected in a photography exhibit. This exhibition runs through May 14, so there’s still time to get over to the Ann Arbor Art Center to check it out.
Amanda Szot is a graphic designer in AADL's Community Relations & Marketing department.
"ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography" runs through May 14, 2016 at the Ann Arbor Art Center's 117 Gallery (117 W. Washington in downtown Ann Arbor). The gallery is open Monday–Friday from 10 am until 7 pm, Saturdays 10 am–6 pm, and Sundays noon–6 pm. Note: the 117 Gallery will be closed for private events on Tuesday, May 3 (closing at 4:30 pm); Saturday, May 7 (closing at 2 pm); and Saturday, May 14 (closing at 5 pm).