Salons of summer

By CHRISTOPHER MILLIS  |  August 7, 2007
FIVE FIGURES: You have to see José Nuñez’s homespun majesty in person.

Neeta Madahar’s first body of work — though I wasn’t sure what to make of it initially, I’ve come to appreciate its incandescent power — was diabolically simple: she photographed birds at her backyard feeder with the searing flash of a strobe light. The effect was comical and eerie, the quotidian made surreal by the artist’s having figured out that she could both capture and transform the commonplace: the events and characters were normal, blue jays and chickadees on a manufactured perch, but the colors were so rich, the light was so bright, and the animals were caught in such a nanosecond of surprise, that the effect was unsettling, unworldly.

The Madahar body of work on display at Howard Yezerski Gallery continues the tradition of blurring the line between natural and unnatural, though the feel is now more cerebral, less arresting, perhaps ultimately more pointed. This time she’s taken a slew of handmade origami flowers and arranged them directly onto the photo paper. By manipulating the light, she makes the images of more or less identical arrangements read quite differently. Some are as varied and colorful as a jar of mixed jellybeans; others, on black backgrounds, become luminous, underwater jewels. Another set of photograms has had the color eliminated altogether; the resulting pattern of blossoms resembles delicately scalloped charcoal.

The organizing principle behind these experiments with light and form is evident when you take in the whole show, but I wonder how a single one will read on its own. The playful inquisitiveness that is apparent as you move around the various groupings is sure to be attenuated or disappear entirely when a solitary photo finds its way into a home or a museum or onto another wall. What began as an iconoclastic send-up of the natural world is threatened with looking, well, normal.

On the floor in the middle of the room displaying Madahar’s photos is one of Rona Pondick’s signature sculptures, Fox, a glistening stainless-steel body of the four-legged creature that morphs into a life-sized human head. Incorporating human body parts onto non-human forms is what Pondick does, and I’m not being sarcastic when I say that nobody does it better. She’s a master of the sort of 3-D hybrid that Hieronymus Bosch started in two dimensions half a millennium ago. My problem with the conceit is typified by Fox: would it make any difference if the human head grew out of a fox terrier or a badger or a hedgehog? I don’t think so. Which means the sculpture isn’t an exploration so much as a riff on the artist’s technical and aesthetic acumen.

The Pepper Gallery’s “Summer Salon” is a farther-ranging exhibit in which gallery stalwarts predominate but a couple of newcomers pop up. Most gratifying among the tried and true is the five-part installation by the acclaimed team of Kahn/Selesnick, whose notoriety stems from their elaborate, faux photo documentaries of make-believe historical events. In “Eisbergfreistadt,” however, there are no staged sepia photos of supposedly far away places with imaginary protagonists. In fact, there are no photos at all.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Hieronymus Bosch, Neeta Madahar, Rona Pondick
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 See all articles by: CHRISTOPHER MILLIS