The Light Brigade

Photographers nearly see the light in Galeria Mesa's "Light Sensitive" show

The primary theme of Galeria Mesa's current exhibition, "Light Sensitive," is photography and the photographic processes that artists are using to make their images. Yet the show's quieter point is the difficulty this kind of exhibition has in attracting first-rate work.

Like many exhibitions developed by small art centers around the Valley, this one was juried from slides submitted by artists. So, rather than reflect a clear curatorial vision about the subject, which is a good one, it represents the general lot of work that came in the mail.

Institutions like Galeria Mesa, the Tempe Arts Center, Chandler Center for the Arts' Vision Gallery or Phoenix's Shemer Art Center, among others, usually have little choice. They lack the money, staff, expertise and space to do more than provide a cursory overview of an artistic subject or theme. Their poverty prevents their curators from going out and building shows--as museums attempt to do--on comprehensive research, scholarship or that slippery thing called taste. As a result, the value of their shows tends to be more civic than cultural.

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Like the Depression-era art centers that the Works Progress Administration developed throughout the United States--some of which grew into major museums--these small, often municipally funded organizations help to raise the visibility of art in a community. And they give artists--usually without gallery affiliations--a place to show people what they can do.

Juried exhibitions also can have a budgetary attraction. Fees that artists pay to enter them add a trickle of revenue to institutions that are being asked increasingly to prove their fiscal worth. Artists entering "Light Sensitive" and other Galeria shows pay $20 to have up to four works considered. Galeria's curator, Patty Haberman, says the shows typically earn less than they cost to put on. Costs for an average show--shipping, insurance, printing costs and prize money--usually run between $4,000 and $5,000. Haberman says the entry fees for "Light Sensitive" brought in about $3,000. The Galeria's recent show of figurative art, which attracted more than 400 entries, brought in more than $8,000.

Haberman says she expected "Light Sensitive" to attract artists who were combining photography with other media. "But the majority of the pieces came in as straight photography," she says. Phoenix photographer Marilyn Szabo juried the 30 artists here from a pool of more than 100.

The 43 works in this show say less about art than about how technology has democratized the once-arduous and rarefied task of making an image. In the past 500 years, the trail from wood-block prints to ink-jet prints has steadily spread the formerly exclusive and specialized power of gifted artists and craftsmen to just about every next-door kid with a camera or computer.

In the 1950s, the urban theorist and cultural critic Lewis Mumford fretted that the proliferation of easily reproducible images was devaluing the arts and undermining the idea that great, original art derives from careful selection. Recent trends in the arts suggest that he may have been right. But the other fact of photographic technology is that it has substantially broadened our sense of what is authentic and real.

As the examples in this show indicate, photogravures are as different in texture and feel from wet-plate collodion and modern, black-and-white photographs as standard color prints are from photocopies, ink-jet and silk-screened images.

The approaches being taken by artists are just as varied. Some artists are using photography's capacity to isolate, abstract and redefine objects and landscapes. Others use it as ad designers have been doing for years: to superimpose images and information, building layers that suggest shifts in concept, time and distance. And a number of artists have abandoned the remarkable print resolution of high-tech photo equipment and processes for the impressionistic blur of low-tech methods.

Rebecca Stockham and Mark Abrahamson are among the few here using color photographs to create color-field abstractions out of surfaces and landscapes. Stockham's large photographs zoom in on the beauty of old painted wood and rusted sections of pipe. Her "Sea" is a close-in shot of wood with blue-green paint. "Inferno" depicts a fiery orange section of rusty pipe. Abrahamson takes a slightly different tact, making obliquely angled aerial shots of polluted watersheds.

The intent of this kind of work is often to "transform," "transcend" or otherwise redefine the subjects--juxtaposing image beside reality. But more often than not, it clings, as these works do, to a limited decorative prettiness.

Many artists in this show are using photographic processes to build works out of superimposed layers of images and information. Maria Velasco's "My Social Self 1, 1993," a hanging, figurative assemblage of transparent lithography film, does so in the round. Yet most of the artists take the two-dimensional approach that Sandy Young has in her digitally manipulated "A Look Inside." The work shows an old boiler or similar equipment with its door or hatch inset--as if it were a viewing screen--with another image. These details are overlaid with a subtle tracery of map markings, hinting at the time and distance the image allows you to travel.

Lynn Gorton uses a similar technique in "Endangered" to do a bit of environmental lobbying. It features an image of a bird's head sandwiched between layers of repetitive pictures of owls and what looks to be manmade equipment such as ladders and the pump arms of oil derricks. The problem is that Gorton's amateurish installation calls as much attention to the hooks used to attach the silk-screened, photocopied and photographic components to the wall as it does to the image itself.

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