“Altered States” of Contemporary Photography in Chelsea

Unfathomable as it may seem, not all that long ago (which is to say as recently as the 1950s), color was taboo if one wished to be taken seriously as a fine artist in the still relatively new field of fine art photography. Purists associated color with advertising layouts in glossy magazines, and dismissed it out of hand. But nowadays, to paraphrase the great Cole Porter song, anything goes. From the puritanical stance of those photographic pioneers, we have evolved to the more enlightened belief that art should reflect its times, both in its refusal to adhere to outdated aesthetic formulae and its embrace of whatever state of the art wizardry suits its purposes. Thus the marriage of subjective vision and technology is the promising premise of the multifaceted exhibition “Altered States of Reality,” to be seen at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from April 14 through May 5. (Reception: Thursday, April 16, from 6 to 8 pm.)

The digital photographs of David Agee are an auspicious place to start. Employing the camera as a tool to explore the internal structure of things, Agee obscures the original identities of objects to create visual metaphors at once slightly sinister and amusing, as seen in his vibrant color print “The Ninja Pill.” By contrast, the familiar takes on a new aspect in the photography of the Mexican artist Apolo Anton Arauz, who often juxtaposes actual objects from the sites he photographs with his images, making an intriguing point regarding reality and its representation. Actual objects are also used by Tokyo artist Hidekazu Ishikawa, whose attitude harks back to Dada by way of Andy Warhol in dotty-brilliant photo-assemblages. Then there is Montserrat Benito Segura, another photographic innovator whose heart also appears to belong to Dada, when she juxtaposes an empty shoe and a footprint side by side as a kind of “evidence” with undertones of forensic aesthetics.

While Sacramento photographer Marisa Atha references a Led Zeppelin song about ascending to heaven in the title of her digital print “Stairway to H,” the acidic yellow tone that she superimposes over an image of funky New York City subway steps ironically evokes the stench of the subway.

Living and working in France, Mary Mansey does in photography what the Impressionists did in painting, while pushing the image closer to abstraction with shimmering visions of sunlight on water that present a refreshingly direct antidote to much postmodern pretension.

James Spitznagel’s use of digital imaging techniques results in austere composition with a sci-fi feeling, particularly in his futuristic city scenes, which hark back to the classic film “Metropolis,” even as they forge ahead into new photographic frontiers. Flemming Hoff also employs urban architecture as a starting point, but pushes it more in the direction of minimalism in his digitally altered pictures of austere desert-like cities almost sinisterly devoid of human life.

Equally minimalist but more grounded in organic form, the floral imagery of Cariappa Annaiah, born in India, now living in Boston, combines an exquisite use of negative space and a sinuous grace reminiscent of traditional Asian flower painting with a photographic vision akin to the still lifes of Robert Mapplethorpe. Floral subjects also figure prominently in the photographic oeuvre of the Canadian artist Angelina McCormick, where a single flower set against a nuetral-toned ground takes on a portrait-like presence.

Bulgarian photographer and art therapist Radostina Valchanova creates a sense of metamorphosis in her semiabstract prints, such as one in which an indistinct subject that may be a tree viewed from below morphs into a stylized star that casts its mysterious shadow on a bright red sky. The Swiss artist Shelley Vouga has her own unique way with imagistic transformation, digitally reconfiguring the angular shapes of gems into baroque abstract patterns suggesting cathedral ceilings or steely spider webs.

Conversely, Clint Saunders uses digital photography to liquify solid matter in dramatic prismatic visions of flowing light and translucent color akin to the “poured” paintings of Paul Jenkins and Morris Louis.

Born in Germany, based in Sydney, Australia, Sylvia Schwenk combines photography with performance art in her prints documenting dramatic public events staged in the streets with multiple participants, which become happenings in their own right when presented in the gallery. Tokyo-born Mari Minegishi’s happenings are confined to her prints, which focus on out of the way rural sites, where she captures and makes immutable the fleeting effects of light on simple rock formations or other natural things, revealing the magic in the commonplace. Clecio Lira also focuses on nature but transforms it digitally by “tweaking” his black and white photographs of lilies coloristically on the computer to lend them a chromatic animation influenced both by his background in modern dance and the costumes and revelry of Carnival in his native Brazil.

Equally baroque in another manner, the photographs of Camila Manero, who alternates between analog and digital photography as her mood or the subject dictates, are distinguished by forms often that often warp or distort in the manner of Expressionist painting. By contrast, Allen Palmer stresses crystal clarity and meticulous detail in his complex, large scale color prints of New York City’s multiethnic neighborhoods, each photographed with sensitivity and respect for its individual culture and character.

Matty Karp’s exotic atmospheric color image of shadowy Asian oarsmen in conical hats, navigating their small boats through a blue expanse that suggests a sky as much as a river, is enhanced by his habit of printing his pictures on canvas to blur the boundaries between photography and painting.

Wildlife advertising photographer Alain Lacki reveals his surreal side, digitally manipulating natural imagery to create startling effects in pictures such as one of a young woman pulling the incoming surf over her like a blanket as she sleeps on the sandy shoreline of a beach. Massimiliano Lattanzi, a poet and astronomer as well as a photographer, also creates startling effects, albeit of a more abstract and metaphysical nature, in which images culled from nature or the night skies take on the quality of calligraphy, X-rays, or diagrams, yet remain visionary and finally indefinable.

Immediately recognizable but possessed of a bizarre quality all their own, the sharply focused prints of the artist known only as LEFT present found stones as “natural sculptures” by isolating them in a manner that reveals the mysterious faces carved on their surfaces by the elements over the centuries, thus inviting the viewer to question the nature of art itself. Multimedia artist Marilyn Holland raises other intriguing questions regarding the photographic “editing” of reality in her powerfully abstracted pictures, particularly those in which pieces of sculpture and other objects are radically “recomposed” in close-up.

Another artist who fruitfully explores the abstract possibilities of imagistic alteration is Malka Inbal, whose “Fabric Delusions” imaginatively transform fibrous substances into fiery explosions, exotic flowers, or any number of other phenomena that expand our visual perception of familiar things.

Narrative elements come prominently into play in the work of Beth Parin, whose black and white photographs employing a collage technique and imagistic fragmentation transform domestic interiors into surreal psychological terrains that give a new symbolic meaning to the old warning “most accidents occur in the home.”

Also working in monochromes, Stefanie Young, a native of New Zealand, creates images of doll-like human faces partially obscured or literally defaced by scratchy lines, which could also suggest tethers and invest her hauntingly beautiful pictures with undertones of sadomasochism.

Purist photography, far from forgotten, makes a strong stowing in the person of Leslie Weil, a successful advertising photographer who, in her fine art Picts combines social consciousness with strong composition and aesthetic qualities.

Then there is Byra Zimmerman, whose love for the classic Dutch still life painters inspires her to create similarly sublime, warmly lit photographic compositions focusing on bottles and other simple vessels. While Zimmerman employs color, she eschews digital manipulation, bringing this exceptional survey almost full circle back to her medium’s classic origins, proving once again that, in postmodern photography, all is permitted.

¬¬Maurice Taplinger

Image Credits: Zen, Giclee Print on Canva, 40" x 34"

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