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Category Archives: Photography in Portland

domesticated_24Amy Stein, “Riverside,” from the series Domesticated, digital C print

Most readers of this blog are surely familiar with Amy Stein’s fantastic photographic tableaux, and those who live in Portland have hopefully caught her current show at Blue Sky Gallery. I’m working on a proper review for the Oregonian, but thought I should break to spread the word about her upcoming artist talk on Saturday, Aug 1. In addition to the lecture, Stein will also be signing copies of Domesticated, which was published here in Portland via Photolucida’s Critical Mass. (Only three days left to apply for your own Critical Mass monograph!)

I saw a version of the Domesticated show in San Francisco last year, and despite the Blue Sky exhibition being unframed, the current incarnation is a stronger showing. I have no doubt that Stein’s talk will be equally smart and engaging.

Domesticated at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave, through Aug 2. Amy Stein artist talk Saturday, Aug 1, at 3 pm. Free.


In the past two or three months, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting three photographers who are fairly new to Portland, and are doing some very interesting things. Keep your eyes open for these talented artists:

Jennifer Boomer
of Dallas, TX and New York, NY: Hey Hot Shot Winner Fall ’07, currently in the Nymphoto Presents exhibition at Sasha Wolf Gallery.


Lauren Henkin of Washington, DC: Current artist-in-residence at Newspace; preparing for June-July show at Camerawork Gallery. Henkin’s prints from Displaced: Part I, based on her self-imposed Nova Scotian exile, are astonishingly frank and beautiful.


Blake Shell comes to PDX from Tucson, AZ, where she taught in the renowned UofA Photo Dept. Working with images and user-generated text culled from the internet, Shell frequently incorporates audio and video into her conceptual remixes of online culture. Also: make note of the blog!


untitledImplosion_smJim Kazanjian, Untitled (Implosion), Archival Pigment Print, 2009

Aberrations, an exhibition of Jim Kazanjian’s hallucinatory photo-composites are on view at 23 Sandy through the end of the month. Kazanjian’s images are pretty amazing, and I was happy to pen a short essay about his work, which can be downloaded here (PDF). Aberrations is on view through Saturday, May 30.

Chen QuilinChen Quilin, from the Garden series, 2007. From China Urban at Reed College.

Readers of the Oregonian might have spotted a few of my reviews in the paper last month. This new gig is particularly exciting to me for two reasons: I haven’t penned local reviews on a regular basis in a few years, and the O is the only daily I’ve ever written for. So far, they’ve been great editors and have been more than generous with their creative allowances, so I’m excited to help the paper expand its critical presence in the local art community.

The three pieces I’ve written so far can be read by following the links below:

Review: Susan Seubert at Froelick Gallery

In its best moments, Seubert’s balancing act of horror and beauty yields artworks that are exquisitely tense and captivating. At other times, though, the two qualities work against each other, creating the sensation that the photos want their proverbial cake and to eat it, too.

“Science/Fiction,” Seubert’s sixth show with Charles Froelick, walks this tightrope with a lighter touch than we’ve come to expect, and employs an array of techniques and strategies to explore notions of home and family, scientific achievement, natural beauty and — just to keep things interesting — mass annihilation.

A Short Editorial Recap of Photolucida

While the Portland nonprofit has garnered a stellar national reputation for serving the needs of its conference attendees, Photolucida is still figuring out its relationship to the local community. While early incarnations of the biennial emphasized citywide exhibitions and public photography events, the increasing popularity of its portfolio reviews has made it even harder for the small organization to organize broader programming.

Review: China Urban at Reed College

Chen Qiulin’s video cycle and color photographs bear poetic witness to the demolition of her hometown, which was flattened and flooded to make way for the [Three Gorges] Dam. Beginning with “Bei Fu,” Qiulin intersperses footage of Wanzhou’s destruction with operatic vignettes of costumed characters engaged in their own destructive dramas. Subsequent videos continue this blend of documentary and performance practices, casting the regions’ drowning death as the central arc of Qiulin’s epic Chinese opera. The artist’s most recent video, “Garden,” follows two migrant workers as they haul cumbersome vases of artificial peonies by foot on an all-day journey through the dense, hazy city. However unnatural, their pink floral arrangements are bright explosions of color in the dingy landscape of overpasses and narrow alleyways.


Tim Lee, “Untitled (James Osterberg, 1970),” C-print, 2004


A Presentation by Chas Bowie

PNCA • 1241 NW Johnson, Portland OR
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 • 12:30 pm

In Gloomy Skies Make Great Softboxes, Portland art critic Chas Bowie surveys the state of contemporary Northwest photography, assessing the work of regional artists who are actively cultivating new photographic idioms and avenues of exploration.

The Pacific Northwest has a longstanding and multi-faceted engagement with photography, as evidenced in part by the legacy of Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery; Seattle’s acclaimed Monsen Collection; and Vancouver BC’s concentration of noted “photoconceptualists.” These disparate traditions are not only well-documented, but markedly at odds with one another, rendering any Northwest photography “scene” more compartmentalized than unified.

As the demographic makeup of the Northwest shifts, however, so too does the application of photography in the fine arts. Gloomy Skies Make Great Softboxes demonstrates how emerging artists such as Isaac Layman (Seattle), Andrew O’Brien (Eugene), and Holly Andres (Portland) are transcending regional aesthetic trends and moving toward an increasingly progressive and critical mode of image-making.

09202101Stereograph Representing a Telescope, anon, c. 1862, from the Getty Collection

On the occasion of the upcoming exhibition, History of the Stereo Card, at Portland’s 3D Center of Art and Photography, March 5-May 3, 2009, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph:”

(The Daguerreotype) has fixed the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality. The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture.

This triumph of human ingenuity is the most audacious, remote, improbable, incredible,—the one that would seem least likely to be regained, if all traces of it were lost, of all the discoveries man has made. It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art. Yet in all the prophecies of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an inconceivable wonder, as our neighbor round the corner, or the proprietor of the small house on wheels, standing on the village common, will furnish any of us for the most painfully slender remuneration. No Century of Inventions includes this among its possibilities. Nothing but the vision of a Laputan, who passed his days in extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, Could have reached such a height of delirium as to rave about the time when a man should paint his miniature by looking at a blank tablet, and a multitudinous wilderness of forest foliage or an endless Babel of roofs and spires stamp itself, in a moment, so faithfully and so minutely, that one may creep over the surface of the picture with his microscope and find every leaf perfect, or read the letters of distant signs, and see what was the play at the “Variétés” or the “Victoria,” on the evening of the day when it was taken, just as he would sweep the real view with a spy-glass to explore all that it contains.

When human art says to each one of us, I will give you ears that can hear a whisper in New Orleans, and legs that can walk six hundred miles in a day, and if, in consequence of any defect of rail or carriage, you should be so injured that your own very insignificant walking members must be taken off, I can make the surgeon’s visit a pleasant dream for you, on awaking from which you will ask when he is coming to do that which he has done already,—what is the use of poetical or rhetorical amplification? But this other invention of the mirror with a memory, and especially that application of it which has given us the wonders of the stereoscope, is not so easily, completely, universally recognized in all the immensity of its applications and suggestions. The stereoscope, and the pictures it gives, are, however, common enough to be in the hands of many of our readers; and as many of those who are not acquainted with it must before long become as familiar with it as they are now with friction-matches, we feel sure that a few pages relating to it will not be unacceptable.

Read the complete essay at the Atlantic Monthly, where “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” was first published 150 years ago this June.
(Less anthologized, but equally lyrical and inspired is Holmes’ follow-up essay from 1863, “The Doings of the Sunbeam.”)

10stru_ca1ready1Thomas Struth, “Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg,” 2005

Beginning on January 28, I will be teaching an 8-week course about art writing at PNCA, which I invite everyone to consider taking. Art Criticism + Journalism meets Wednesday nights (6:30-8 pm) through March 18, and is offered through the school’s Continuing Education department.

The class premiered last fall, and was more engaging and dynamic than I had even hoped for. PNCA has extended it from a 6-week course to 8 weeks this semester, which will allow for even more in-class development, feedback, and exploration. The course is open to all levels of experience, and the class of 2007 included a frighteningly bright high school senior, the former art director of a national culture magazine, and an investment banker who wanted to write about the opera in his retirement.

Focusing primarily on reviews of visual art shows (although students are encouraged to write about all art forms), classes are comprised of discussions, lectures, writing exercises, and readings. The craft of writing insightful, persuasive reviews is covered in depth (drawing largely from the texts of Terry Barrett, Sylvan Barnet, and Henry Sayre), but we also discuss many of the social/pragmatic issues that commonly face art critics. This includes topics ranging from the usefulness of negative reviews to practical issues like starting your own blog and writing effective pitches.

If anyone is interested in signing up for the class, I encourage you to do so, or to email me with questions (chasbowie @ gmail). Classes start in less than two weeks!

barer_c-01Cara Barer, Houston, TX.
Projected winner of the 2008 Critical Mass book award.*

I just finished viewing 160 online portfolios for Critical Mass, the Portland-based competition that awards two to three photographers a year with swanky, fully-funded, widely-distributed monographs of their very own. Like a gaggle of pudenda-checking Westminster judges, 199 “of the world’s best curators, editors, and professionals,” along with myself, were given 10 images and an artist statement from each aspirant. A lively game of Hot or Not: The Roland Barthes Edition followed, with each photographer receiving a score of 0, 1, or 5.

It was, as with everything in life, a bon-bon hunt in Turd Hollow.

My criteria for evaluation is moderately pluralistic; it essentially boils down to “Keep the hoary clichés to a minimum.” In the course of looking through the portfolios, however, I noticed several other, subconscious evaluative measures:

  • If you photographed anyone who could be described as a “villager,” you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If your subjects were selected because they possess only four of the five senses, you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If you and I are friends, you got a 1. Call it the Great Nepotism Equalizer.®
  • If my first thoughts were either “Michael Kenna” or “Keith Carter,” you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If your work was mostly good, but looked like an Alec Soth outtake, you probably got a 1. (See you in the blogosphere.)
  • If I was compelled to enlarge all 10 of your jpegs, you got at least a 1.
  • People could be a lot more subtle with the Photoshop. Just saying.
  • I feel bad for photographers who make exactly one stunning image and nine unsuccessful attempts to bottle that same magic. I gave them all 1’s, to restore the symmetry.
  • Few phrases are as neutered and meaningless today as “politically correct,” yet it seemed entirely appropriate for a few of the treacly series I saw. Those were the only times I wished I could vote with negative integers.

These guidelines helped to trim a lot of the fat, although I disregarded a few of them more than once. Thankfully, we could vote for all the 5’s we wanted, and didn’t have to whittle it down to a top three. There were lots of 3’s and 4’s on my list—work that successfully avoided all the pitfalls listed above and stood firmly on its own merit—but if they weren’t honest, unqualified 5’s, they had to be lumped with the other, less remarkable 1’s.

The 21(!) artists I maxed out my voting privileges for all surprised me in one way or another—whether by turning a familiar convention on its head, or using techniques and strategies I typically don’t respond to and employing them so well I had to tip my hat. Plenty of the artists I reviewed know exactly what to do with their eyes and their equipment; the ones included here similarly know just what to do, but then shift everything a few degrees off-axis to create something disorienting and fresh.

In no particular order…

riedler_r-02Reiner Riedler, Vienna Austria. Vacation time in the era of simulacra.

abbott_j-08John Abbott, Irvine, CA. Neo-Modernist abstractions of power lines and communication towers.

lockwood_w-05Walter Lockwood, Los Angeles, CA. Sergio Leone flicks, performed by Asian American cast.

aaronson_j-06Jeffrey Aaronson, Santa Barbara, CA. Scenes from the US/Mexico border.

percher_e-05Eric Percher, Brooklyn, NY. Theatrical portraits of high-power young businessmen.

heller_r-05Robert Heller, Knoxville, TN. Birkenau concentration camp.

friedman_a-04Amanda Friedman, Hollywood, CA. Nocturnal landscapes, minus the usual banalities.

miller_g08Graham Miller, Fremantle, Australia. Edward Hopper meets Ray Carver in the land down under.

lampton_a-06Adam Lampton, Boston, MA. A sleepy Portugese colony is rapidly transformed into major gambling mecca.

sibilia_m-09Michael Sibilia, Hopewell Jct, NY. Remarkably vivid landscapes.

alleman_t-07Thomas Alleman, Los Angeles, CA. The only plastic camera work I’ve ever enjoyed.

brggemann_j-05Jörg Brüggemann, Berlin. The backpack/budget-tourism industry of Southeast Asia.

takemoto_h-10Hideki Takemoto, Hokaido, Japan. Memory and loss, rendered with Super8 camera.

cartagena_a-01Alejandro Cartagena, Monterrey, Mexico. Demolition landscapes in downtown Monterrey.

parisi_m-01Mary Parisi, Pacifica, CA. Wonderfully resuscitates the dormant genre of food photography.

plviranta_h-08Harri Pälviranta, Helsinki. Drunken, Finnish street fights. Enough said.

whittle_s-06Scott Whittle, Brooklyn, NY. Some of my favorite work. Scenes from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

kaufman_j-07Jessica M. Kaufman, Brooklyn, NY. Pastoralism and decay at Nazi concentration camps.

malone_a-02Alison Malone, Brooklyn, NY. Inside an elite, all-girl strain of the Masonic Youth secret society.

lancaster_l-10Lauren Lancaster, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Staff photographer of UAE newspaper depicts country’s complexities.

*My prediction of a Barer victory is purely speculative, based entirely on my wicked sooth-saying abilities. Here’s Barer on my olde blog.

I’ll skip the groveling and self-flagellation that usually follow stretches of blog blackout to say that paying gigs and personal sanity (rightfully) took priority over all of my passion projects, including That’s a Negative, although I remain dedicated to developing this site. The past six weeks or so found life too overcrowded for everything, so blogging had to take the backseat for a late summer break. (As did blog-reading; my Google Reader overfloweth.)

Out of necessity, my original goal of reviewing each of these shows was revised to the idea of having one long essay that somehow encapsulated all of the exhibitions. Unfortunately, that ship has already sailed. For the sake of wiping the e-slate clean and unshackling myself from the burden of reviews not yet written, here is a roll-call of everything I have intended to write about during this period of inactivity. In many cases, I really regret not being able to expound on my notes and thoughts, but I’d be working on this post until the Obama victory if I took the time to do so. I’m still on deadline and desperately short on time, but circumstances are conspiring to give me a little more blogging time very soon. Here, then, are the things I would have reviewed in a more perfect world.

In Portland:

Emi Anrakuji: IPY at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Andy O’Brien: “Star Maps: (l-r) Spike Jones, Nicolas Cage, Don Johnson” at Newspace’s Annual Juried Exhibition (Full disclosure: I bought the Nic Cage piece)

Melody Owen: Alexandria, I’m Waiting at Elizabeth Leach Gallery

In Seattle:

Isaac Layman: Photographs from Inside a Whale at Lawrimore Project. (My favorite show of the season; I must write about Layman soon.)

Gregory Blackstock: Vernacular Photography at Garde Rail

New Photo: Richard Barnes, Martin Klimas, and Fred Muram at Howard House (Fred Muram, “One Day I Will Learn to Build Things” pictured)

Ask a Banana, Baby: Swedish Contemporary Video and Photography at Howard House (Annika von Hausswolff, “A Given Moment in the History of Coming into Being” pictured)

Smoke & Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum (through Nov 9)
A really well curated group show from the museum collection, exploring depictions of and experiments about ephemerality in photography, featuring Muybridge, Sugimoto, Nagatani, and many others. Titled for Eileen Quinlan’s photos of smoke and mirrors—many of which I like very much. (Quinlan, “Smoke & Mirrors #10” pictured)

Mark Soo “That’s That’s Alright Alright Mama Mama,” c-prints, 3-D glasses, and angled wall at Western Bridge‘s You Complete Me

In San Francisco:

The Art of Lee Miller at SFMOMA (through Sept 14)

Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera at the Museum of the African Diaspora (Roy DeCarava, “Couple Dancing” pictured) (through Sept 28)

Amy Stein: Domesticated at Paul Kopeikin Gallery

Gillian Wearing, from Trauma, 2000

At 8:30 pm tonight, TJ Norris and I will present Masked Men and Virtual Identity, a rapid-fire meditation on deceit, camouflage, identity, cover-ups, and duality before the camera. It’s part of a Pecha Kucha hapening, described as “creative people talking about creative things,” wherein everybody shows 20 images and speaks on them for 20 seconds each. If you’re in town, I hope you can make it. The event flier can be seen here.

34 NW 8th (8th & Couch), 8:20 pm, sliding scale

Eadweard Muybridge, Plate 700 from Animal Locomotion, 1887, collotype at Charles Hartman Fine Art

Coming off of a better-than-average month of photography in the city, summer’s dog days aren’t a particularly rewarding time for photo enthusiasts in Portland. Next month’s Wild Beauty at the art museum should be a pretty big deal, particularly with a visit from historian/curator Martha Sandweiss on October 22. (Don’t bother searching for the lecture or exhibition on PAM’s website. Their Upcoming Exhibition page yields “no records.”) For the next 30 or so days, however, Portlanders will just have to get their photo fix tapas-style: a nibble here, a taste there, wishing they could just get on with a full course already.

Charles Hartman‘s collection of vintage Muybridge collotypes from Animal Locomotion is a notable exception, however. Muybridge’s motion studies are perfect 19th century endnotes, with their deconstruction of natural phenomena into mechanical processes, slippage of the still photograph away from autonomy and toward motion pictures, the dandyish gentleman’s wager of the series’ origin, and the silly exuberance of the later images in the guise of scientific inquiry. (“Hello, Governor Stanford? Could you please send over two naked handmaidens, one baboon, and a crippled child for tomorrow’s shoot?”)
Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, 134 NW 8th, Tues-Sat, through Aug 30

Of the two Blue Sky shows this month, I’m most looking forward to the work of Toronto-born, Kiev-dwelling photojournalist Donald Weber. He’s showing work from two series: Bastard Eden, which profiles the people living in the woods and abandoned apartment buildings—against strict orders—in the Exclusion Zone that surrounds Chernobyl, as well as The Underclass and Its Bosses, a portrait of Dneprodzerzhinsk, where the fall of Socialism “created a moral vacuum” that enabled rampant criminality, corruption, and violence.

Additionally, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (of TV’s ER and CSI!) exhibits his Boda Boda series, which depicts the bicycle delivery men of Uganda. Their dilapidated bikes are used to haul enormous loads, but aside from this curious exoticism, I’m not really seeing the strength of this work so far. Based on the jpegs, it seems that Mwine’s photographs don’t actually tell us anything about the boda boda men (in a journalistic sense), nor do they possess the arresting visual strength of, say, Pieter Hugo. (Perhaps it’s not a totally fair comparison, but it’s entirely inevitable, and not altogether unfounded.)
Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th, Tues-Sun, through Aug 31.

The lionization and mythology of the 1970s New York underground scene is perpetuated in Bande à Part at Augen Gallery. The traveling exhibition features photos of NY’s creme de la cool, as seen by Billy Name, Marcia Resnick, et al. Perhaps I was born at the precisely wrong time, or more likely, I’m just in the wrong phase of my adult life to get even remotely excited about mediocre photographs of Basquiat, Warhol, Reed, and the rest of the Nico-through-Blondie years.
Augen Gallery, 716 NW Davis, Tues-Sat, through Aug 28.

Chicagoan Ryan Zoghlin exhibits work from his NIMBY series at Newspace this month. Said photographs “focus on the eerie margin where suburban and industrial areas meet.” Not to single out Zoghlin here, but jesus christ, can we come up with some new themes to exploit and explore, please? The collective work of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and their Nü Landscape contemporaries ranks among the best unofficial photographic movements of the 20th century, but I’d be more than tickled not to see another bland, rehashed, large-format color photograph of a parking lot, generic warehouse, airport, suburban home, dirtbike track, unbuilt neighborhood, or abandoned shopping center until at least 2013.
Newspace, 1632 SE 10th, Mon-Sun, through Aug 31.

QPCA’s group show, Urbania, continues through the end of the month with the complex photo-constructions of Gerald Slota. Using every tool at his disposal except Photoshop, Slota de- and re-constructs nearly indecipherable scenes of post-human realities. Using copy negatives, collage, negative deterioration, re-photographing of images in situ and other manipulative techniques, Slota creates some of the most digital-looking analog photos I’ve ever seen.
Quality Pictures, 916 NW Hoyt, Tues-Sat, through Aug 30.

Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, from the series Nocturne, 2007-8

Gentle readers,

My apologies for the leaden dearth of activity on That’s a Negative; freelance life is in overdrive at the moment, and I haven’t had the opportunity to compose anything substantial for the blog. My “to post” backlog is enormous, with half-written reviews of great shows in Portland and Seattle, previews of exhibitions in both of those cities, thoughts on several new books, and other tokens of photo-miscellany. Normal posting should return by next week; in the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

If you’re in Seattle, Isaac Layman’s show at Lawrimore Project is a must-see. There are a few aspects of the work I still harbor reservations about, but rarely do I have an ongoing mental argument with a show for this length of time. It’s as smart and bold as any gallery show I’ve seen in Seattle, and Layman is clearly an artist who has given the nature of photography a lot of consideration.

Next Tuesday, August 12, artist TJ Norris and I are co-presenting a mini-slide jam at a Pecha Kucha event, to be held at the corner of NW 8th & Couch. I’ve never been to one of these, but participants show 20 slides at 20 seconds apiece, so at eight presenters, it should be a wham-bam, visual overload of a free event. (Other participants include the project manager of Maya Lin’s Confluence Project; bike advocate Meghan Sinnott; and a former curator of the Harvard Film Archive.) TJ and I curated a jpegshow (formerly slideshow) that zigzags from Klansmen to Trekkies to hot air balloons. Hopefully we’ll figure out how to tie it all together by next week. (Event is Tues, Aug 12, 34 NW 8th, 7:30 pm [starts at 8:20], sliding scale.)

Noel Rodo-Vankeulen’s Nocturne series strike me as the antithesis of every tedious trend currently being played out in contemporary photography. I’ll defend my position soon enough, wishing all the while that I was able to check out his prints on view next week at Brooklyn’s Bond Street Gallery.

Lastly, what’s happening San Francisco? If a particular photo enthusiast were passing through in a week or two, what would said stalwart be foolish in missing? I’m planning on catching Amy Stein at Robert Koch; Double Exposure at the Museum of the African Disapora; RongRong at SF Camerawork; Lee Miller at SFMOMA; and perhaps Edwin Hale Lincoln at the deYoung. Have I missed anything fantastic?

Jim Lommasson, from the series On the Road, c. 2003

Photolucida’s Northwest Summer Portfolio Reviews—a smaller, localized version of the nonprofit’s biennial reviews—are happening in Portland this Saturday and Sunday, July 26-7. The reviews themselves are only open to registrants and reviewers, but a free event on Saturday night gives the public a chance to scope out all the artists who signed up for the reviews, as well as the work of 11 Oregon shooters selected by the Photolucida board. In addition to Jim Lommasson, keep your eyes open for these other invitees:

TJ Norris, “Rabbit Test on the Moon,” 2006

Alexis Pike, “A Teton, St. Anthony, Idaho,” 2004

David Paul Bayles, “Severed Limbs #1,” c. 2002

Bruce Hall, from the Portland Grid Project, 2006

Heidi Kirkpatrick, “Rose” from the series Botanical Photograms, 2005

Sika Stanton, untitled, tintype

Blake Andrews, from the series Big Pink, 2002

Ann Ploeger, untitled, c. 2005

Angela Cash, untitled, n.d.

Bob Gervais, untitled, n.d.

Photolucida’s Portfolio Walk happens at the Art Institute of Portland, NW Davis & 11th, Sat, July 26, 6-9 pm, free

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #55,” digital c-print, 2008

A relentlessly cheerful treatise on grotesque post-human fantasies, Daniel Barron’s A Numb Hinge is one of the most provocative, sly, arresting, and sensual photography shows I’ve seen in Portland. In a remarkably conservative photography climate (local and national) that continues to favor “straight” photography (in color and with a 4×5, please), Barron’s abstract, digitally-assisted creations of fleshy pink cavities, wet eyelids, broken blood vessels, and bubbly glycerin tubes push the medium toward new aesthetic and technological territories.

The statement that accompanies A Numb Hinge indicates that technology is at the fore of Barron’s artistic concerns. But his interest isn’t in Photoshop’s ability to create fantasies that look, by all measure, strictly photographic, as his do. (I am not privy to how the images in A Numb Hinge were made, nor do I think it’s a particularly relevant question.) The artist is interested in the unemotional nature of scientific advance; how the beneficial effects of penicillin on bacterial infections and the destructive reactions of nuclear fission are, in and of themselves, entirely impersonal. Technology, by this way of thinking, can be seen as “an emotionally unresponsive, indifferent device on which subsequent events depend”—e.g., a “numb hinge,” which, unscrambled, reveals itself as “human being.”

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #57,” digital c-print, 2008

Rarely, however, has cyborgian impassivity been so fun: If the soulless detachment of a post-human future has typically been imagined as fatalistic outcome, whether by Phillip K. Dick or Aziz + Cucher, Barron takes a different tact. A Numb Hinge envisions our fleshy future, in which bloodshot eyeballs occupy meaty knuckle sockets, as a consumerist idyll-a technological advance that can be beautified, photographed, and marketed like a Prada handbag.

“A Numb Hinge #55” exemplifies Barron’s gleeful, pop aesthetic approach to these quasi-scientific, disquietingly graphic subjects. With unflinching verisimilitude, “#55” depicts a fleshy object of Barron’s photo-digital creation: A human eyelid (though not attached to any larger skull), opens itself to accommodate a shimmering tube of ice, which slides into the orifice almost pornographically. (Pubic hair, however, has been replaced here by dew-y eyelashes, which are photographed with immaculate clarity.) The eye-socket aperture is presented as a cropped fragment of a larger whole that we can’t discern, although one can see that another similar eyehole exists at an unnatural 90 degree angle to the first, like a fleshy, pink, elbow joint. An un-readable attachment protrudes from the left side of the object, connected either by a honey-colored resin or a natural sap. “#55” is a speculative vision of mad science at play-the human body as a purely mechanical system that can be genetically and physically adapted to accommodate oblique, inhuman purposes.

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #52,” digital c-print, 2008

It’s not the subject matter that makes “#55” so remarkable, however: It’s Barron’s treatment and presentation of the material. If and when the artist’s vision of all-out post-human anatomical modification is realized, we can be sure that the idea will be sold to us (subconsciously) as a technological advance capable of ensuring that we (a) never have to die, and (b) have a good shot at getting laid. The skin in “#55,” as in all of the pieces in A Numb Hinge, is flawlessly nubile—pink, blemish-free, unwrinkled flesh that evidently repels water so that it beads up and cascades off, like a Man Ray teardrop or an opaquely shellacked D’Anjou pear, coated in a light mist of water before the catalog photographer shoots it. Whatever they may graphically depict, the real messages of A Numb Hinge‘s body parts are “sex” and “youth.” If the throbbing penetration of the wet tube into the tight, slippery opening of “#55” was too subtle for audiences, the small protrusion of a lapping, curved flesh-mound attends to the base of the shaft like a tiny tongue. (The bubbly, icy tube, all the while, looks like the sum manifestation of Wilson Bryan Key‘s hysteria about subliminal images erections and skulls allegedly being airbrushed into beverage advertisements in the 1970s.) If any doubt should linger about Barron’s advertorial approach, “#55’s” background of hazy, candy-colored stripes promises a bright, carefree future that carries the aesthetic hopes of both psychedelic transcendence and an afternoon of retail therapy at the mall.

Daniel Barron, “A Numb Hinge, #52,” digital c-print, 2008

These strategies recur throughout A Numb Hinge. “#52” shows the “head” of a meaty flesh-worm, whose slippery surface is closer to the lining inside your mouth than the flesh on your palms. The center of the slimy, pink tube nestles a strange, flecked, yellow and green ball that could be both a citrus rind and a diseased eyeball. Repulsive on one hand, the form’s oozy tactility begs to be poked and fingered. In the background, we can make out slightly unfocused, similar forms, included in the photograph as if to assure viewers that scarcity is no issue, and that there’s enough for everybody, including you. As with many of Barron’s pieces, there is a large portion of the composition left mostly blank, which good editorial and commercial photographers know, is always appreciated by picture editors and art directors who need a spot to include the sales pitch.

Formally and technically, Barron’s attention to detail is meticulous. When one of his watery, glycerin tubes penetrates a bodily orifice, the tonal reflections of the skin are rendered in the bubbly with impeccable, rippley precision. These images withstand the closest scrutiny, and never betray their digital seams or in-camera trickery. The photographs’ uncanny realism is responsible for the squeamish response they invoke, but it’s the artists’ use of ultrasoft lighting and tender chromatics that make the images in A Numb Hinge so undeniably seductive. Barron’s beauty is of the repulsive variety, and he’s adept at teasing out the carnal elements of grotesquerie. These fantastic subjects may indeed be numb to the banalities of their own applications, but Barron is too deftly attuned to our propensity for novelty and our evolutionary mechanisms of desire to allow us to remain unmoved by the numb hinge of progress.

A Numb Hinge is on view at Pushdot Studio, 1021 SE Caruthers, Mon-Fri, through July 25.
Daniel Barron dot com

Fireworks and freedom interfered with Newspace‘s normal opening reception schedule this month, so the gallery’s juried exhibition (which contains a generous helping of strong photos, I must say) will be celebrated tomorrow night with a reception from 7-10 pm.

But that’s not all that’s happening tomorrow night: I just got word that Michael Burnett is having an exhibition and book release party at Cal’s Pharmacy (15 NE Hancock) from 7-10 pm as well, with live music by Yes Father. Cal’s website says that “Most skateboard types who pay attention will know Mike as the driving force behind Thrasher Magazine over the last 5 years or so.” Presumably, everyone reading this has been paying attention, didn’t need the reminder, and is psyched to check out his new book of photos taken on tour in China and Russia, The Outskirts of Awesome. (The cover photo is pretty great.)

Also happening Friday evening: Apart from That makes its Portland debut at Living Room Theaters (across from Powell’s)! Directors Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin made this truly independent film in Mt. Vernon, Washington (better known as B.F.E.), and despite critical raves, they found themselves with a completed feature on their hands and zero distribution. So Walker and Shainin produced a gorgeous book to accompany the DVD, and have been hitting bookstores and hosting special screenings around the country. The film is fantastic; click one of the linked reviews for a synopsis, or just soak in these influences that the directors cite online: Uta Barth, Raymond Carver, John Cassavettes, Jim Jarmusch, William Eggleston, Edward Albee, and Daniel Johnston. All together now: *swoooon.*

Apart from That runs Fri-Tues at Living Room Theaters (film times here), but Friday’s 7:25 screening is the one to catch, as Walker and Shainin will be in attendance.