Altered: A Three-Way at Photocentric
Photocentric’s recent exhibition, Altered felt like traveling in three different realms: through cities, through space or under water, or–in a macro vs micro way–examining tiny details of a gritty environment. The show brought together a group of photographers who just about couldn’t be more different. The completely distinct color palates and photographic pursuits of Rita Montlack, Steven Mastroianni, and John Slepian didn’t blend, but they didn’t clash, either. Indeed, the three-way contrast served the show well.
Rita Montlack’s 50 or so works in Altered are presented as two groupings, each of which read well as collective installations, though each photo was conceived as an individual piece. Stacked in a column on one wall, she showed 8 diptychs with an interesting turn in her ongoing use of digitally altered photos: Most of her work in this vein has begun with the urban landscape. But during the pandemic, the artist found a collection of old wallpaper books stashed in a dark closet. She began to work with the vintage patterns, first photographing them, then changing colors and layering them with her black and white photos. Those became the series, “My Art Runneth Over.” Her use of that nostalgic, graphic source material is an intriguing development. It will be interesting to see if she continues along this line.
The images in her larger installation, collectively called Woke Dope Joke, are dominated by photos of urban landscape, in her more familiar vein. Partly due to the installation, envisioned by Montlack, painstakingly executed by Photocentric proprietor Michael Loderstedt, the scale and collective impact make these a show-stopper. They start as digital, black-and-white landscapes, but the monochrome serves as a foil for her own hand: after the artist works them with Photoshop, the first thing that strikes viewers is the color. Montlack says she is intrigued by the ability to change the images with the click of a mouse, and—whatever else might be captured by her lens–those touches become the foreground, like rainbow patches of color cast by a prism on the other side of the room. Those touches completely change the image, but leave the original landscape intact. Once you look through the color, you can take in the original content of the photo. Most of the images in Altered were created during the pandemic, and most of her landscapes are in Cleveland, but the need to escape lockdown had Montlack looking back through travel photos as well, and having her way with those. So there are also color-inflected scenes from London and Venice. These were conceived individually, and they stand that way, but the whole is impressive, like a volume of travel photos. You can find a familiar Cleveland skyline. You can find one of the typewriter- text murals created by WRDSMTH as part of his Summer 2021 How Do I Love Thee tour, sponsored by Graffiti Heart: “Create. Every day. And making excuses does not count.” It’s something to take to heart. Motivational, inspirational text shows up in several of Montlack’s images, reminding that “No one is like you,” that you should “follow your dreams,” and “believe.”
Transparency and layering are important in Stephen Mastroianni’s new photograms, too. Photograms are like photos, made with the cast of light, but they have more in common with drawings, which is how these begin: Mastroianni draws a plan, finds objects or cuts paper and other material to execute it; he then arranges them on the paper, and exposes it to light. As he told us a few years ago, he had taken up photograms for a show at Heights Arts, for which he used sticks and stones as forms for drawing. In a slightly more recent show at the Cleveland Print Room, he had moved on to a range of objects, from pasta and flat washers to masonry nails.
Using transparent and translucent objects is a new frontier. In black-and-white photograms created as silver gel prints, such as Corona Series #7, drinking glasses, cups and jars cast their distinctive forms. The varied amounts of glass between the light and the paper make gradations so that the objects seem to move, or glow. It’s a nuance that makes an impressively precise analog of the object itself. As a whole the print is an abstraction with lots of interpretive possibility.
The cyanotypes are another new development with appealing results. Most obviously, the chemical reaction with sunlight makes them a distinctive shade of blue. Mastroianni made them in a greenhouse in his back yard, which he called the “cyanoterrarium.” He’d arrange the objects on the paper before dawn, with limited working time. Any material, including photographic film, could be used to shape the light in a cyanotype. He chose to continue the drawing practice, using variably translucent papers and other objects that create different densities of that distinctive blue. The result is a range of intensities, and the perception of depth, as if the viewer is looking through layers. Certain elements look soft, ethereal, or perhaps like they are deeper in the distance. It’s only partly the blue of the cyanotypes that makes these look like undersea worlds, or like skies. The content and composition also play that role. Paler, stenciled forms in Iconix Series #6 are reminiscent of clouds. Arcs drawn on Iconix Series #3 evoke orbital lines. Fathomable Series #2 has a particularly watery feel. It seems to have an accumulation of something—brake pads or some other automotive detail—on the floor of the depths, with streams of bubbles rising toward the surface.
The industrial look of some of those objects, and the gritty, urban look of Montlack’s photographs are what connects the two to the digital transfer photo prints of John Slepian. These are high resolution, close-up photos of nuts, bolts, screws, and a bottle cap, all used, all rusty, printed on plywood. They are an arresting change of focus, macro to micro. Instead of searching and depth-probing the scenes and imagined views offered by Montlack and Mastroanni, these are single, specific objects, unmistakable in their specificity, texture, and concrete-ness.
Photocentric is in the midst of a run of interesting juxtapositions. Altered closed at the turn of the year, but is immediately followed in 2022 by Homebody, which pairs photographer Bridget Caswell with painter Timothy Callaghan. What connects them is the neighborhood, which is not only where they both live, but also is the content of their work, both in its scenes and in its people. It’s another one not to be missed.
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