Parallels between art and gardening. Like artworks, the garden is designed to provide an experience that transcends the everyday. Yet both partake deeply of the same currents — cultural and biological — that structure our more mundane lives. Pervasive in both is a tension between the idea of perfect order (found or created) and that of chance or serendipity.
These thoughts are just a few of many invoked by the Johnson Museum’s “Picturing Eden,” a photography show that combines sensual richness and literary/philosophical depth. The theme of paradise is to be taken in a broadly imaginative rather than narrowly theological sense.
Here, Adam Fuss works with the photogram, a camera-less technique in which objects are imprinted directly onto light-sensitive paper. His three color prints are upright, portrait style — his favored format.
Love has richly embodied paradoxes: figuration and abstraction, composure and chaos, life and death. Half way up, two dark purple rabbits face each other, dead. Their outlines are alternately furry and aqueous. Emerging from these figures like an overgrown umbilical cord is a wet, Pollock-like line tangle in lurid colors: purple, orange, ochre, and turquoise — the trace of flattened animal entrails. The background is stark white.
More quietly, Fuss’ Invocation and Untitled draw an analogy between humble locomotion and a more spiritual transport. Against watery, colored backdrops (Indian yellow and blue, respectively) dark silhouettes swim heavenward; a baby in the former piece and a snake in the latter. The snake is the more graceful; its curves meld with the ripples of the water.
Mark Kessell’s three oversized portraits also evoke life and death. Against a black background, A Trick of the Light shows the head and shoulders of a ghostly, blue-gray baby, vertically streaked. The Residue of Vision, splotchy and brown-tinted, shows a skull. The textures are the result of Kessell’s unusual method of re-photographing daguerreotypes (an early photo technique resulting in unique images on silver plates).
Doug and Mike Starn are as interested in material supports as they are in images. In two poignant large-scale inkjet prints, a collage of warm-white, translucent papers has been stretched over a frame. The grid is clearly visible and forms an integral counterpoint to the printed imagery. Behind these grids is a ghostly underlayer printed with similar forms.
Both pieces are from the Starns’ “Structure of Thought” series, in which the wildly branching forms of silhouetted trees are meant to echo the dendritic “trees” of neurons — and, by extension, to act as a metaphor for maze-like human cognition. To this end, the silhouette effect flattens the trees, creating an ambiguously suggested perspective. This is particularly evident in SOT #20, in which the tree begins branching closer to the bottom edge than in its relatively stable companion SOT #2.
Sally Gall’s gelatin silver prints, though conventional in size and technique, echo the Starns’ interest in dislocation. We are underground, in holes or caves, looking up to the light. In Heaven trees seems to grow inward from the edges of a bread-slice-shaped aperture.
Alec Soth’s Green Island, Iowa gives a lovely, lonely, oblique evocation of the garden. We see the corner of a dusty, abandoned building. On wooden floorboards sits a ball of off-white thread, slightly unraveled. Above, set against an expanse of weathered gray wall, is a torn patch of colorful floral wallpaper. Both Green and its companion, Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana are from Soth’s documentary series “Sleeping by the Mississippi.”
A subtle and perhaps unexpected variation on the garden theme is offered by J. John Priola. There are four gelatin silver prints, each depicting a lighted window silhouetted against an expanse of unbroken darkness. In three, we look in from the outside: a detached, voyeuristic point of view uncharacteristic of “Eden”.
Not unlike the box assemblages of Joseph Cornell, the varied grids of the windows enframe micro-worlds. Nested geometries add to the pieces’ alien poignancy: the upright windows are echoed by the proportions of the prints themselves, and further so by their two-by-two installation grid.
15th Street, 3rd Floor (the titles reference San Francisco) is both abstract and garden-like with its divisions of flat-space. Its panes, opaque with rivers and fogs of condensation, mask blurry dark hanging plant pots in the upper corners. 15th Street, 2nd Floor, gives a relatively clear interior view. We see a desk with a lamp, various obscure boxes, and a framed picture with strange figures (more nesting). The window has been raised slightly. The arched window of Dolores Street, Ground Floor N. offers reverse voyeurism; we look out at trees through Venetian blinds.
While Priola’s windows contain brittle warmth, Matthias Hoch’s two large color prints are mercilessly deadpan in style and subject. Following in the school of contemporary German photography pioneered by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Paris #28 and Paris #31 show gray and anonymous modern architectures imprisoning fragments of greenery.
This is a sprawling show containing numerous works repaying sustained attention. “Eden,” which originated at the George Eastman House in Rochester, will be up at the Johnson through March 22.
UPDATE (02/18/09): A representative from the George Eastman House has contacted me with the request that I add the following information. "Eden" was guest curated by Deborah Klochko. After the Johnson, the show will be up at the the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota Florida from May 9th until August 2nd of this year.
Also note that the version of this review published above differs substantially from the one in print.
And that the opening sentence fragment is deliberate.