RALEIGH — Taking pictures tends to be straightforward for most people, but manipulating photographs into art can be a lot more involved. And most of the photographs in “Currents” are anything but straightforward.
The exhibit, on display in the downstairs gallery of Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum through Oct. 7, consists of pictures that have been run through various high-concept approaches. Different pictures have been treated with water, burned with sunlight, digitally gender-switched and even reassembled into unrecognizable collages. That last approach resulted in what might be curator Nils Ericson’s favorite piece in the show.
“The one that might be most effective is also the least ‘photographic,’” said Ericson, a Brooklyn-based photographer. “That’s Carolyn Janssen’s ‘Massive Failure.’ There’s the sheer size of it, it’s the biggest piece in the show, and it seems un-photographic from a distance. But every bit of that image is a picture she’s taken of a texture or surface. Move around, and it envelops you.”
Other striking works in “Currents” are Chris McCaw’s “Sunburn” series, a group of monochromatic landscape shots scarred with streaks from exposing the film to sunlight; “Lakes and Reservoirs,” in which photographer Matthew Brandt treated photographs of lakes with water from the same lake pictured; and Debbie Grossman’s “My Pie Town,” a series of Depression-era documentary photographs with all the men’s faces digitally altered into women.
There’s also Arne Svenson’s “The Neighbors,” which calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 suspense thriller “Rear Window.” It’s from a series of photos that Svenson shot of a high-rise apartment in New York, unbeknownst to the subjects, which caused some controversy (and still-pending litigation) when they were displayed at a New York gallery earlier this year.
“New Yorkers live in high-rises and leave the windows open, and there’s the implicit understanding that everyone has a pair of binoculars,” Ericson said. “So you’ll check each other out because everyone lives in a fishbowl, and it’s inquisitive human nature to take a look. The pictures are really beautiful and painterly, just showing banal everyday moments. But even though they haven’t compromised anyone, there’s been alarm at the idea you can legally take someone’s photo without them knowing it and put it on a gallery wall. It’s easy for me to sit here and say that’s not an invasion of privacy, but I admit I might feel different if it were me.”
All the pictures in “Currents” came from the collection of Allen Thomas Jr., a Piedmont-area collector whose archive has also been displayed at the N.C. Museum of Art and Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. After CAM contacted Thomas about showing a set of his photos, he enlisted Ericson to select 19 for exhibit.
“I tend to collect a lot of stuff without a specific approach,” Thomas said. “I don’t have the ability to curate a show, I don’t think. I just like a bunch of things without seeing them as thematic. If there’s a theme to this, it’s current work in different media of photography.”
Ericson and Thomas set one goal of spotlighting up-and-coming photographers whose work had not yet been shown in this area – and another of exhibiting pictures that might play off one another in unexpected ways.
“We wanted work that was complimentary and had some push-pull,” Ericson said. “That would bring you into individual pieces and allow you to make a connection visually, emotionally and conceptually between a photograph and something else across the room. In this era of digital photography, a lot of these artists are saying ‘no thank you’ and working with analog film – or shooting digital but altering photographs in an analog way.”
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