Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tina Freeman & Martyn Lucas at Homespace; Judy Natal at the Front

It is said that if all of the ice in Antarctica were to melt, the sea level would rise 200 feet. Fortunately, we're nowhere near there yet, but as a landscape it constantly changes as its icy expanses grow, melt and recede in a shape-shifting geographical ballet, so no two visits to the same spot are ever alike. Photographers Tina Freeman and Martyn Lucas brought back their own unique views of its dramatic  contours. Both are exercises in romantic minimalism, but Freeman's images are more contemplative. An untitled seascape, above, features a rather cosmic looking iceberg with a stark vertical crevasse, a clean cut as if from the axe of Thor, radiating eerie blue light from the sky behind it. Others are more subtle yet still defined by the power of the vast space and light that pervade them. Printed on a form of mulberry paper that the Japanese have made for millennia, their aura is eloquently meditative. The work of Martyn Lucas, left and below, recalls the more overtly dramatic tradition of Ansel Adams, and it is all very well done. Here an iceberg like a craggy glacial fortress arising from a frigid green sea rivals Cecil B. DeMille's production values, but even his more prosaic scenes of abandoned boats and snowy mountain ranges resonate an almost narrative sense of adventure no less than a Jack London tale.

Judy Natal's  Future Perfect photographs evoke an ecological science fiction story set in the near future based on the dystopian aspects of the present.  Here figures in Hazmat suits probe the ruins of Biosphere 2, new looking cars are unearthed like archaeological artifacts, and man made objects mimic the natural landscapes that surround them. As science and technology probe the natural world, nature increasingly probes back, testing our ability to adapt to the chaos we inadvertently created. Future Perfect gives us a lot to think about. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Antarctica, The Last Continent: Photographs by Tina Freeman and Martyn Lucas,  Saturday & Sunday Through Feb. 3 Homespace Gallery, 1128 St. Roch Ave., 917-584-9867; Future Perfect: Photographs by Judy Natal, Saturday & Sunday Through Feb. 3, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980;

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Alison Pebworth at Antenna; Imen Djouini & Jonathan Taube at the Front

America has always been many things to many people. A beautiful, bountiful land that promised wealth and freedom to people who had neither, it was also tainted by slavery, oppression and genocide against its native inhabitants. This raucous mix of high ideals and base motives was oddly reflected in  19th century traveling medicine shows, which these banner-like Beautiful Possibility paintings by Alison Pebworth evoke. Collectively they refer to a nervous ailment dubbed "Americanitis" by the psychologist William James. A malady brought on by rapid change, it even inspired patent medicines to treat it. Reflecting clashing circumstances, Pebworth mixes past and present to suggest aspects of Americanitis for us to decipher. Remarkable Tricksters features P. T. Barnum, B'rer Rabbit and Karl Rove. Another features a Native American totem with Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop and Wall Street bulls. In The Greatest Show on Earth, an old time circus ringmaster stands atop a power plant cooling tower flailing a whip at a tsunami in an apt summation of our approach to climate change. A whimsical installation, these works effectively evoke America's colorful complexity over time.

Over at the Front, Bywater artists Jonathan Taube and Imen Djouini dealt with the related issues of borders and displacement by erecting a crude earthen barrier just inside the gallery entrance. Neatly excavated from a rectangular cavity behind the building, it blocks our approach to some big graphic depictions of North Korea, Palestine and the Arizona-Mexico border on the wall. An exploration of the romance of landscapes characterized by border conflict, Djouini and Taube's minimalist project bluntly yet eloquently reminds us that migration remains a charged and complicated issue, and that human aspiration knows no boundaries but is mainly constrained by dreams and mirages. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Beautiful Possibility: New Works by Alison Pebworth, Saturdays, Sundays Through Feb. 3, Antenna Gallery, 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975; Rampart: Positive + Negative: Site Specific Installation by Jonathan Taube and Imen Djouini, Saturdays, Sundays Through Feb. 3, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980. Left: Beautiful Possibility Still by Alison Pebworth.    


Anyone riding the Brooklyn L train (or hanging out in Bywater) these days can see that tattoo culture is thriving, especially among women. In fact, 2012 was the first year in which more women than men were tattooed in the U.S (twenty-three per cent of women, compared with nineteen per cent of men). Margot Mifflin’s 1997 book, “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” examines this trend, which, it turns out, has been surprisingly long in the making. The book is a cultural history, with photographs of tattooed women and female tattoo artists through the ages, beginning with a white Native American captive with a chin tattoo, Olive Oatman, left, from 1858. The third edition of the book, released last week, includes a hundred new photographs that examine how tattoo culture has evolved over the past fifteen years. As Mifflin writes in the introduction, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.” As we approach the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this observation is especially resonant. More>>

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at McKenna

For over 30 years, Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have been the most dedicated documenters of African American life in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans and their native 9th Ward. Partners in art and life, their photographs record the vanishing lifestyles of the countryside as well as the timeless traditions of the city's second line parades, carnival and church rituals, marching societies and social aid and pleasure clubs. Based in the Lower 9th Ward, they had assembled a massive portfolio that covered almost every nook and cranny of life in our African American communities by the time hurricane Katrina inundated their city and neighborhood, as well as their home and studio. After they returned, the muddy mess that was all that remained of most of their negatives was frozen to prevent further deterioration, but the damage was irrevocably done. Or was it?

This Faces of Treme series documenting the rich street life of America's oldest black neighborhood features a vivid assortment of views from negatives that survived undamaged as well as some that did not. And therein lies a surprise because the storm ravaged emulsions of negatives that often seemed beyond redemption sometimes turned out to be, with tweaks, surprisingly eloquent, imposing a post-apocalyptic, surreal quality on their subjects, so the show alternates between documentation and near abstraction. Among the former we find Calhoun's Treme Social Aid and Pleasure Club: Henry Youngblood, above, a pristine 1986 documentary view of a classical Treme procession scene, as is McCormick's 6th Ward High Rollers, left, while her Pink Pride, Trombone Shorty, top, also from 1986, is very different, a color abstraction where the scene has become an amorphously diffuse nimbus like a clouded, yet eloquently surreal and dreamlike, mirror. All comprise a priceless record of the street life--including portrait studies of the great musicians and local characters--that made Treme the national treasure that it is today, even as the photographic duo who documented this and other vital African American communities became their recording angels.~D. Eric Bookhardt

Faces of Treme: Photographs by Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, Through Jan. 26, McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St., 586-7432. Left: Baby Doll Alma Borden, 1987, by Keith Calhoun

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sarah Cusimano Miles at Martine Chaisson

That oft repeated phrase, "man's conquest of nature," has been sounding a tad ironic of late. Science and technology are just as amazing as ever, but Ma Nature has been pushing back, serving up a bumper crop of wind, water and wildfire disasters over the last few years. The old renaissance ideal of turning the natural world into art at least maintained a sense of balance--the still life (aka "nature morte" or "dead nature") paintings of the period often had a leering human skull placed among the fruit and flowers to remind us that mortality always had the last laugh. But old time natural history museums of the past often seemed sort of dead to start with. Sarah Cusimano Miles' Solomon's House photo series deploys vintage objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama, and subjects them to her camera's penetrating, ultra-high resolution gaze. Inspired by Francis Bacon's proposed utopian 17th century natural sciences academy of the same name, Solomon's House is an oddly psychological, sometimes disturbing, series that reveals as much about human attitudes as it does about its animal subjects themselves, taking us on a journey where vintage science itself is put under a microscope.

Some images involve straightforward, if unusually aesthetic, views of frogs and reptiles in bottles of formaldehyde, but others feature stuffed birds and animals in the studied poses of vintage still life compositions with fresh fruit or veggies. The results are beautiful yet strikingly and intentionally "off" in ways that reflect the ambiguities of scientific "progress" and its relation to the evolution of art over the years. In Herring Gull with Artichoke, top, the stuffed gull seems to have swooned at the sight of the artichoke, while the equally aged little bird in Lilac Breasted Roller with Kumquats, above left, looks tragic, as if it keeled over amid the chaos of spilled kumquats and an overturned silver pedestal dish. And Pangolin with Garlic, above, suggests a Jurassic gormand on a rampage. It's a weird new take on the old forbidden fruit theme, a metaphor, perhaps, for an age in which art and science, old and new, sometimes appear almost hopelessly entangled, and nothing is as clear as the utopian scientists of the past had once imagined. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Solomon's House: Photographs by Sarah Cusimano Miles, Through January 26, Martine Chaisson Gallery, 727 Camp St., 302-7942