James Spitznagel brings something distinctive and strange to the Upstairs Gallery — and to Ithaca's often over-familiar art scene — with his latest show of manipulated worldviews: "Metamorphoses: An Exhibition of Digital Fine Art Photography". Spitznagel is also an electronic musician and his sensibility here is similarly experimental. He compares the improvisational and unexpected nature of his image-making to Abstract Expressionism, an analogy based more on process than on overt style.
In addition to more straightforward means of digital manipulation, the pictures involve re-photographing imagery off of screens, typically at an off-angle. Perspective is oddly twisted as a result. We see the subtle overall grids of the screens, but rarely quite perpendicular with the edges of the paper.
Spitznagel is not forthcoming about the real-world sources for his otherworldly abstractions. Nevertheless, most of his prints allude to — while ultimately eluding — our sense of the familiar. Many of his photos (a sampling hangs in the gallery's back room) suggest still-life.
His front room pictures are more diffuse, lacking a center or an un-ambiguous perspective. Indeed, they suggest an abstract urban cartography — the modern city and modern art filtered through a science fiction aesthetic. Each of these printed sheets here is 17" x 22" and stands upright.
The City # 1, 2, and 4 are busy, patchwork-like grids of Cubist forms in overall gray tones. Square and rectangular shapes appear flat, like the roofs of a crowded futuristic metropolis seem from the sky. Occasional diagonals suggest a contradiction, breaking the flatness.
The City #28 vividly resembles the man-made canyons of some big city streets. The tall building flanking to the left and right evoke Manhattan — although they appear as a dense abstract tapestry of white, black, and gray rectangular patches. Below center are faint light-ish letters, reminiscent of Cubism and collage.
Perhaps the most compelling pieces here are a series incorporating more amorphous, less obviously rectilinear textures. (The ever-present grid is still here in the form of the overall screen texture.) These pieces are evocative of circuit boards and Gothic architecture alike. Their shimmer of light is sometimes reminiscent of Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral.
The City #19, with its sparsely printed dark green-brown seemingly making the white of the paper glow, is a standout in this vein.
The City #10 is distinctive for its suggestion of interior space, along with a (more or less) human scale. Toward the lower right there is what looks like a half-open door, half blocking a patch of bright white glare. The piece is vaguely, oddly reminiscent of Velázquez's seventeenth century masterpiece Las Meninas, a meditation of self-reference, looking, and picturing. While there is little of that here — certainly there are no figures — there is a strongly narrative, cinematic ambience: one thinks of the futuristic film noir of Blade Runner.
The City #15 is the most radical plunge into abstraction, a thoroughly perspective-less composition with only the most tenuous reference to its erstwhile subject. (Piet Mondrian's classic abstract painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, influenced by the NYC street grid and by jazz, is a conceptual and stylistic ancestor.) We see a lumpy island of square blocks, printed in black and gray against an expanse of white. The black blocks are solid in tone within; otherwise we see a fine mesh-grid texture.
Finally, there is a standout City in Red series, a triptych. Each of the three panels, hung in a row, is roughly continuous with the others — but with discontinuities as well. 1 and 2 suggest a city skyline seen from a considerable distance. There is an allover smear of red. Above the jagged horizon is a cloud of magenta and white; below are architecture-like arrays of black. There are spots of yellow too. These color layers continue into 3 but the perspective seems to shift to aerial — and we are no longer perpendicular to the city grid. We are thus twisted out of what otherwise might be a postcard view.
Not everything here works well. In particular, some prints are overly reminiscent of surveillance imagery - an interesting narrative association perhaps, but less than lovely to look at. Still, the best of these images maintains the Upstairs Gallery's usual high standards while tweaking familiar expectations of gallery art.