Who would pretend that photography is not a legitimate art form these days? Certainly not the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) and Exposure Gallery. Their partnership has led to a number of quality photographic exhibitions in Ottawa. The current show titled distURBANce makes no exception. It presents artworks by Glenn Bloodworth, Freeman Keats, Bill McCloskey, Maureen Murphy, Richard Perron, and Richard Robesco, all members of the Studio Zone V collective.
Exposure Gallery’s interior layout is typical of old houses with doors, windows, a stairwell, and checks in the walls. It supports multiple functions: dining room, meeting room, and art gallery. It stands far from the white cube. It is spirited and brings art to people – not the other way round.
Hanging a show like distURBANce at Exposure is a challenge, taken up by co-curator John Hallum with success. The dimensions of the artworks on the walls vary from 100 x 75 cm to a quarter of that size. Hallum made no attempt to regroup photographs from the same artist. Yet, the first impression walking into the room is one of unity. This unity rests on two distinctive features: colour and sharpness. All prints present a palette of subdued colours – no scenes were captured under bright sunlight. All photographs are also superbly crafted. Don’t look for snapshots in this show. Imagine instead cameras mounted on a tripod with framing, composition, exposure, and sharpness carefully controlled. One sees the touch of co-curator Michael Tardioli, creative director at SPAO, who has acted as a mentor and critic for Studio Zone V from the beginning of this project. The overall show is soft spoken. It should be visited slowly and quietly.
The photos in distURBANce explore a common theme. They show traces of human intervention in the landscape, not in the wild spaces, but at the edge of or within the city. This theme has been examined before in the history of art and of photography. The interest of the exhibition lies in the way each artist approached it.
Murphy’s works break the mold of the single photograph. She presents polyptychs made of three, six, and nine photos respectively. The photos depict the frontage of houses, finished or under construction, adopting the contemporary boxy and colour neutral architectural style. The aesthetics of Murphy’s work is reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Murphy gives little visual context around her main subjects. Yet one can see bits of older style neighbouring houses and cracks in the pavement. This way, Murphy subtly hints at the intrusion of new architectures into existing neighbourhoods:
Robesco proposes four works of different sizes, yet displaying great aesthetic unity. Their orientation is vertical and their composition is organized along strata of elements including dumped material (stones, wood), trees, and a cloudy sky. We are in the no man’s land between the city and the countryside that too often serves as a savage dumping ground. Robesco’s landscapes are thoughtful. Their combination of subdued colours, low contrast, and horizontal lines contributes to create a dim atmosphere that matches the theme of the photographs:
Perron’s pictures present an interesting panoramic proposal whereby two photos are put side-by-side with no attempt at seamless stitching. Clearly coming from negatives, the prints also retain some of the mask around them. Perron’s landscapes represent mining sites with massive transformation of the land. The magnitude of the scar is emphasized by the tiny man-made structures visible in the distance of each scene. One of the works includes two characters representing two different generations and facing each other. The black line in the middle of the images acts as a metaphor for the rip in the territory:
McCloskey submits two night shots of detention centres (see cover image). These are located in the midst of the City of Ottawa and of the City of Gatineau. The darkness of the night and the brightness of the artificial light combined with the extreme sharpness of the prints make the scenes look unreal, as if they were movie sets. The very mat surface of the works forces the viewer to move in to grasp the details of the images.
Bloodworth shows construction sites and roadworks in the city disturbing the normal going around in the streets. His use of a wide angle lens brings together elements that would otherwise escape normal vision. Keats identifies industrial or commercial encroachments in the rural landscape near the city. His photos present themselves as riddles, the nature of the intrusion not being necessarily grasped at first sight.
The challenge of such a six participant thematic exhibition is to keep the viewer focused, to make him experience different facets of the same reality without having his attention dropped. The artists of distURBANce can say: mission accomplished.
Exposure Gallery is located at 1255 Wellington St. W. The exhibition runs until December 27 2015, Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 8 PM, Saturday from 9 AM to 6 PM, and Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM.