Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Monotoned Marvels

Monotoned Marvels

By Tom Wachunas

Some species of sea mammals are not equipped to see in color – a condition called cone monochromacy. Whales, for example, can see only in terms of light patterns. But if those denizens of the deep perceive a world even half as beautiful as that presented by photographer Clyde Butcher, they are surely a blessed species. We here in Canton are similarly fortunate to behold the current exhibit of his work at Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography.

Butcher is a classicist in the majestic tradition of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. He’s a formidable modern master of a fading art in this digital age. His black and white, large-format prints in this show, called “Wilderness Visions,” largely from his collection entitled “America the Beautiful,” are an utterly stunning and heroic record of intricate American landscapes and ecosystems.

On an abstract level, Butcher’s images are unabashedly sumptuous celebrations of pure texture and a patient, uncanny attention to light. And from the perspective of representational content, they are visionary epics - monumental narratives that savor places as yet undisturbed by the polluting sprawl of human progress. Spiritual places. Mysterious, magical places.

Beyond the startling mastery of depth and clarity that these pictures demonstrate, there is a more ineffable presence here – one easily more achievable with the convenience of color. It is a fugitive but nonetheless refreshing quality, and one I’ve rarely encountered in viewing the contemporary black and white photography that poses as art theses days. It’s a quality that’s simply not attainable with standard-format digital photography. I’m speaking here of warmth. Not as in real air temperature, of course, but a pictorial state of being that affects the degrees of our receptiveness to the subject at hand. Warmth as in something magnetic, inviting, even mesmerizing.

And so it is that even a snow-blanketed scene like “Yosemite West 62” can draw us deep into its warm matrix of gently gnarled, crisp black lines woven through a rich tapestry of shimmering whites and velvety grays. The deliciously cloud-rippled sky in “Rock Island Prairie” is a breathtaking study in pure tactility. And ‘monumental’ is simply too small a word for the impossibly varied, lush tones and textures of mountains and sky that surround - but somehow manage to not overpower - the white accent of a distant waterfall in “Inspiration Point 26.” Inspiration indeed. The soft drama of haunting, ethereal light in “Agawamuck Creek Falls 3” is as sensual, perhaps, as the forest sprites that you half-expect to peek out from the tantalizing shadows.

These are only some of the thoroughly seductive images – miracles of monochromacy all – that make this exhibit a whale of a show.

Photo: “Agawamuck Creek Falls 3” by Clyde Butcher. On view in his exhibit, “Wilderness Visions” at Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown in the Canton Arts District. Through June 25. Gallery hours: Wednesday – Saturday, 12 – 5. (330) 438 – 0030

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