Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Master Lensman's Legacy

A Master Lensman’s Legacy

By Tom Wachunas

Photograph: a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.
- Ambrose Bierce –

In his day (late 19th century) Ambrose Bierce (aka “Bitter Bierce”) was the journalistic king of sardonic commentary on…everything. Clearly he didn’t consider photography an artistically noble pursuit, and his view of painting seemed equally cynical, calling it “the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” To a certain poetic extent, he got the “painted by the sun” part right for photography (particularly nature photography), and similarly in painting, the idea of exposed surfaces. Now, if we maintain our poetic sensibilities and combine the two, we might come up with something a little more illuminating as to process, like this: photographs from nature are flat surfaces painted by the sun after exposure to the artist’s decisions.

Enter Art Wolfe. He’s a world- class, award- winning conservation photographer who has, in the course of 30 years, left us a ravishing record of vanishing or threatened species and environments in far-flung reaches of the world. The current exhibit of his large format color prints at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, titled “Travels to the Edge,” is ample and sumptuous proof that Wolfe has honed his instruction in fine arts from long ago (meaning his artistic decision-making skills) to a point of stunning refinement.

The visual power of this exhibit is in Wolfe’s keen eye for organized color distribution in the forms we see, beautifully enhanced by fascinating textures. These are thoughtfully framed scenes, masterfully constructed in a way that an orchestral composer arranges a variety of instrumental colors, rhythms, and textures to support a main theme. Call them concertos for the eyes.

Eyes indeed. Hunkered down in a lush bed of warm-colored wildflowers, the baby birds in “Snowy Owlets” peer directly at us with a riveting, even threatening gaze. The startling brightness of their round orange eyes echoes analogous colors in the flower petals around them, and is an intense counterpoint to their fluffy, delicate gray down. That same facile employment of color rhythms to lead the eye through a composition is evident throughout this exhibit. In “King Penguins,” for example, the birds’ rounded white breasts, like high-relief punctuation marks on the dark earth of the shore, pick up the larger shape of the whitish sea water; the orange features of their heads act like staccato repetitions of the eerie glow of the sky at the distant horizon.

Even more compelling here are those photographs that, while certainly faithful records of real forms and moments in time, are nonetheless distinctly more abstract in appearance. In fact some of these are so imbued with a tactile lyricism that they look like modern paintings. “Flamingos” is an aerial view of liquidy land masses with amorphous edges, in various white tones amid undulating light tans and blues. The Flamingos are almost indistinguishable as birds but for the subtlest hints of pink, appearing as a flurry of very tiny dots clustered in the center, and rising up into a gorgeous patch of vibrant cerulean. The photograph is reminiscent of the poured color-field canvases by famed abstractionist Helen Frankenthaler. And “Cathedral of Ice” is a thrillingly sensual, mysterious Antarctica meditation that is unmistakably reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s haunting explorations of floral forms.

This show is very much a double-edged living legacy. On one hand, Wolfe continues to issue an urgent call to savor and protect our natural wonders. And on the other, his exquisitely crafted visions constitute truly great art.

Photo, courtesy Art Wolfe and Joseph Saxton Gallery: “Flamingos,” on view in “Travels to the Edge,” through October 1, 2010, at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, Ohio. Gallery Hours are 12p.m. to 5p.m. Wednesday – Saturday. (330) 438 – 0030.

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