The Photo Arts Center goes beyond photography.
Virgil Marti’s sculptures “Night Watch” and “Vesper” stand like sentinels at the entrance to the Philadelphia Photo Art Center with a kind of haunted-castle grandeur. The 6-foot, 80-pound slabs are shaped like ornate mirrors one might find in Snow White’s stepmom’s bedroom; instead of glass and foil, though, they’re made of rough plywood plated in chrome. They reflect a dull sheen from a nearby window, but no clear images—it’s a standoff between viewer and mirror in which Narcissus loses, and a perfect greeting to Wall Space, a great little show about image.
They’re not the only nonphoto works at this Photo-titled venue, either; the inclusion of a few paintings and sculptures in the show pushes the ‘A’ in PPAC beyond the confines of photography—a good move. Without a strictly defined theme, Wall Space’s 16 works by seven artists deal with the presentation of image—rather, the desecration, mutilation and obfuscation of image. Portraits, landscapes, movie-poster collages and faux mirrors offer ambiguous, and in some cases, hostile portrayals that defy the conventions of image-making, especially at a gallery with such a focus on photography.
You might think of an image as something built up to an organic whole. Here, image is fragmented, transformed by cut-and-paste, cover-up and abstraction—Wall Space is more about deconstructing, disassembling and dissembling images. It’s a fitting subject when bedrock human concepts like identity and friendship are decomposing in cybermystery. Who are we, anyway—the composite of the images we create of ourselves on Facebook and Twitter, Gmail and Flickr? Or if it’s something more complicated than that (I certainly hope it is), then how exactly do we define our images?
One image-management-avoidance tool is hiding. Julie Weitz’s gouache drawings “Big Black” and “Big Blue” elevate it to the realm of icon. The beautiful portrait drawings of two heads covered by Balaclava face masks might be advertisements, they’re so beautiful, seductive and illustrational. They also suggest robbers or terrorists. The person beneath the mask is hidden, the image unresolved.
Nearby Marti’s wooden mirrors, two large color photos by Daniel Gordon, “Purple Bust” and “Seated Portrait,” are as crisp and snappy as the opening works are veiled. Gordon’s work does the meta-cha-cha between the second and third dimensions—he starts off printing out and cutting up two-dimensional images of people found on the Internet. He then assembles the jumble of eyebrows and skin tones into collage sculptures, sort of the thing relatives would get if kidnappers sent pasted-together 3-D simulacrums of their captives instead of cut-out ransom notes. The effect is one of disturbing nonlikeness—a Frankensteinian hodgepodge with a blue eye culled from one source, a breast from another, hair, hands, legs, feet from somewhere else. The image is then sent back to the second dimension, flattened into a photograph of the sculpture.
Even the image of Earth as steadily eternal is changing. Depending on your state of alarm about global warming, you will react variously to Micah Danges’ series of bleached-out black-and-white landscape photographs with colorful pieces of plastic inlaid like transplanted organs. The photos, on Plexiglass supports, have holes vaguely resembling bodies of water carved into them, which are filled with biomorphic color fields. While John Baldessari has been bombing photographic images with colored dots and shapes for years, Danges’ landscapes are far more unsettling—rather than a Pop move, these suggest a godlike planner altering the land for some inscrutable corporate use.
Many of these works and others, like Anita Allyn’s altered movie poster/protest signs, Luis Gispert’s color photo “Cold Storage” and Christian Boltanski’s 1987 “Monument,” seem preoccupied with image as it applies to popular culture. Gordon’s cut-and-paste Frankensteins in particular echo American’s obsession with looking different. Want green eyes, a new chin, a divorce, an exciting new IT career, blond hair, your record expunged? All can be changed, they say, frequently invoking “a new you.”
What does it say about us that image-altering remedies are inescapable? That’s a question to consider asking Gordon himself—he’ll be giving a lecture about his work at the PPAC Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.
Through Feb. 26. Free. Philadelphia Photo Art Center, 1400 N. American St. 215.232.5678. philaphotoarts.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9