Photography offers escape, sexual and sublime, in two summer shows, "Arcadia" at ClampArt and "Desert Light" at Throckmorton Fine Art, allowing for one’s preferred mode of transcendence and taste.
At Chelsea’s ClampArt, "Arcadia" offers a mix of contemporary color and black-and-white work plus a couple of paintings. The most flamboyant and colorful image in the show is Pan (from the late 1960s), a god whose mythic home was Arcadia. This Pan is by James Bidgood, a gay photographer who influenced David La Chappelle and Pierre et Gilles but who isn’t nearly as well known.
Bidgood presents the god at his pipes with alluring soft flesh surrounded by Technicolor props and a minimum of strategically placed clothing. Amid all the splendor and artificiality, the body of Pan is real, not air-brushed into perfection. The balance makes the image all the stronger.
As if this find weren’t enough, Arthur Tress, whose life’s work was the subject of a recent retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., contributes another imaginative erotic male image in Groom with Arabian (1996) in black-and-white. Here a full-length male nude is shown facing away from the viewer, holding the reins of a white horse in a forest setting. Man and beast, both bare and white, are subsumed in a misty atmosphere, framed by a repoussoir of foliage.
Less overtly sexual but equally interesting is Tress’s Adam in the Park from 1982. A slender boy, nude to the waist, stretches out his youthful arms for balance as he totters near a pond’s edge. It expresses in a lyrical way the wonder and daring of adolescence.
Not all work in "Arcadia" is focused on the male body. Mother Nature herself is scrutinized in all her moods. Stan Gaz studies the impact of meteorites on the surface of the earth in gelatin silver prints of craters, while Marc Yankus looks up and sees Clouds from My Father’s Roof (2002), a Tiepolo-like study with delicate colors, very different from his portraits and cityscapes and an admirable new direction for the artist.
Some think of Arcadia as an ideal setting for natural man, a paradise, but Lori Nix’s chromogenic print Paradise (2004) of a glade and waterfall is perfect only at first glance. Then you notice the floating barrels from some sort of wreck. Her sly color photos rely on table-top set-ups that she manages to make look almost real. Her Hummingbirds (2009) seem like she’s following in the footsteps of the 19th-century painter Martin Johnson Heade until you realize that these little birdies have no feathers and can’t make a sound.
More straightforward is British photographer Stephen Wilkes’s view of the sublime in his Alaska Glacier with Climber (2008) in which a tiny figure trudges up icy blue crests.
Wave (Silver) (2006) by Aziz & Cucher is something different, a scanned photo of a breaker that gets pulled apart and then built up in layers into a semblance that’s decorative and oddly textured yet haunted by the initial image. The pair call this and similar works in this series that blend the natural and artificial "synaptic bliss" or here "Scenapse." I call it intriguing, especially with the silver paper giving this particular work a decided shimmer.
Karen Gunderson is the one painter here. Her all-black, thickly stroked oil Arcadia gets its image purely from the light falling on brushstrokes, which adds a subtle, beguiling third dimension to the work. This is one of a series of all-black paintings by this artist, who has painted clouds, constellations and even portraits of Barack and Michele Obama using the same method.
"Desert Light" at Thockmorton Fine Art is filled with great work, primarily vintage gelatin silver prints with a few earlier processes represented, mainly by American and Mexican photographers.
One enigmatic print is Marilyn Bridges’ Desertscape, Death Valley, Ca. from 1991. It seems a bit anthropomorphic at first, but knowing Bridges specializes in aerial photography from low-flying planes explains the image to the mind while taking nothing away from its startlingly original beauty.
Bridges’ Khephren, Giza Egypt (1993) with a looming triangular shadow cast by a pyramid, is another spectacular photograph. It is nicely paired with a very different view, a hand-colored albumen print of the Pyramides de Cheops et de Cheffren from around the 1880s by Maison Bonfils, the French firm that was the first resident photography studio in the Middle East.
Edward Weston’s Oceano (1936) offers an impressive counterpoint to Desertscape, capturing abstract patterns of sun over sand, while his Pulqueira/Flea Market, Mexico City (1926) shows a folk painting of a scrub-filled desert on an exterior wall with two charming little boys, offering a realistic look at everyday life.
Other works by Weston and two of his sons, Brett and Cole, are in the show. I especially liked Brett Weston’s high contrast, highly patterned close-up of a Maguey / Agave Plant.
Weston encouraged many Mexican photographers during his time in Mexico in the 1920s, including the well-known Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Work by Alvarez Bravo, like his Organ Cacti, Mexico (1929-30), work of his wife Lola Alvarez Bravo, and his assistant Graciela Iturbide, one of Mexico’s best artists are here, too.
Iturbide’s Mujer angel/ Angel Woman in a 1999 print is a classic image of a woman perched above a desert pulling a rope, presumably with an animal at the other end, and carrying a boom box. Surely this angel can only be a divine creature since she loves music so much.
Elizabeth Sunday, a contemporary figurative photographer, has three prints of individual Tuareg people from Mali against a neutral background. I hadn’t seen her work before and was most taken with her Nobleman, The Sahara Desert, Mali (2007). With the regal sweep of his robes and his perfectly balanced placement within the shot’s frame in her gold-toned gelatin silver print you don’t even need a title.
Sexy nudes in the desert arrive from the 1950s, courtesy of fashion photographer Andre De Dienes, perhaps best known as Marilyn Monroe’s discoverer. Here his females lie sprawled on rocks or walking dunes leaving footprints in the sand. One can’t imagine the latter will get very far, but it makes for an eye-catching image.
"Arcadia," June 11-Aug. 14, 2009, at ClampArt, 532 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
"Desert Light," June 25-Sept. 12, 2009, at Throckmorton Fine Art, 145 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.