Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Israel through two pairs of eyes

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
Israel at 60: Time and Diversity
Apr. 3—27, 2008

Two photographers, two different but not unrelated takes on the same subject. In this case, photographers Hank Paper and Marjorie Wolfe are showing images shot in Israel at the Kehler Liddell Gallery. Ostensibly marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel, the show eschews the political controversies swirling around the Middle East for a couple of personal travelogues.

Paper is gifted at the art of street photography. (In an objectivity alert, I work for Hank Paper at Best Video in Hamden.) He has a strong intuition for seeing telling juxtapositions, amusing correlations and compositional complementarities. There are numerous examples of this among his images in this show. It's noticeable in his first picture, entitled "Palms." On first look, the picture seems to be just a shot of a couple of young women on a pool deck in the foreground leading a group of people in the pool in water aerobics. It is the second glance that is the hook. The two women have their arms raised in "V"s-a stance mirrored by two large palm trees in the background. Their long fronds arch up from the trunk.

This show isn't about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But its presence is implicitly felt in several of Paper's images. In "Love Not War," a male and female soldier in fatigues gaze joyfully into each other's eyes. The conflict is there in the image of two soldiers, backs to the camera and guns slung over their shoulders, among the four people at the Wailing Wall ("Four Figures at the Wailing Wall.")

Throughout his shots is a running theme of the tension between, or the coexistence of, the ancient and the modern. This angle is present in the aforementioned "Four Figures at the Wailing Wall": an Orthodox man in traditional dress black suit and hat is seated facing the ancient wall in a molded white plastic chair. It is represented in images that capture people in modern dress with, primarily, men in the raiments of the Orthodox.

This tension is also evident in the architecture and is captured metaphorically in the large image "World of Spices." In this image, brightly colored plastic trays—purple, yellow, red—display mounds of powdered spices for sale. Heaped in the modern plastic containers, the spices (shades of gold, brown, orange, red and gray) look like ancient colored sands. From the lower left corner, a hand reaches in toward one of the containers. The purple in the sleeve of the sweater complements the color of the container. The weathered hand reinforces the evocation of antiquity. The impact of "World of Spices" is heightened by its display below "Jordanian Night Clerk, Haifa." This image is of an ultra-modern hotel reception desk with a background of rich, almost blacklight-glowing purple. The design diagonals around the desk echo the diagonals marked by the edges of the spice bins.

Paper's stock-in-trade is as a street photographer, capturing snapshots that rise to the level of art. His technique is strong enough to serve the power of his images but it isn’t that of a master photographer. Marjorie Wolfe, on the other hand, is well-schooled in photographic technique. As she notes in her artist statement, in Israel she worked differently from her usual method, which is to photograph "slowly, precisely and formally." Notwithstanding her self-conscious attempt to adopt more of a street photography approach, her images are notably more formalistic than Paper's. Details are sharp and subjects appear to have been chosen more for their compositional coherence.

About half of her photos are in color, a departure for Wolfe, who has long worked primarily in black and white. She approaches the addition of color to her imagery much as a chef might experiment with adding a new seasoning to a cuisine—starting with a pinch and not a tablespoon. As an example, the decrepit peeling building wall in "Façade" is mostly monochromatic. Exposed gray concrete, chips of white, stained beige paint. But catching the eye are the three window frames, painted in bright turquoise.

Texture and architecture take precedence in Wolfe's images over figures. There is a particularly beautiful black and white image of the ruins at Masada ("Ruin, Masada"). The crumbling stone wall curves around, the left side embedded with geometric curves and lines of mosaic. In the right center there is one arched open window space. Through this opening and above the walls one looks out into a cloudless sky, its silken spotlessness a contrast to the hard-won cragginess of the ancient architecture.

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