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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ways of looking: Phyllis Crowley's "Fields and Screens"

Paul Mellon Arts Center
333 Christian St., Wallingford, (203) 697-2000
Phyllis Crowley: Fields and Screens
Through Dec. 15, 2012.

Phyllis Crowley's show at the Paul Mellon Arts Center, Fields and Screens, injects landscape photography with a hearty dose of compositional conceptualism. Photography is always about looking, about visual choices, but Crowley's four series—Tilted Plane Series, A Wider View Series, Looking Glass Series and the Horizon Series—overtly foreground the act of looking.

She does this by embracing abstraction, by often choosing to compose around formal elements (shapes, lines and shadows) not so much to convey pictorial information as to marvel at formal relationships. For example, in "Coral Strip," part of her Horizon Series of sea-and-skyscapes, the strong horizon line is complemented by soft vertical shafts of light peeking through the clouds.

The Tilted Plane Series were all shot from the windows of banking planes. My favorites are "Mountain, Cloud, Shadow" and "May Hills and Valleys." The latter image edges most strongly toward abstraction with its alternating of light and dark land forms. In the former, a solitary cloud, seen from above, shadows the hills below. Snow-capped peaks dominate the middle distance and in the background we see the quilted layout of civilization.

Phyllis Crowley: "Red Sea"

The photos "Red Sea" and "Orange Tide," also part of the Horizon Series, are almost Rothko-like. In these two images, the singularity of the horizon line is deemphasized. What we see instead are varying horizontal bands of color both in the sky and reflecting on the water. This motif also animates "Evening Tide," albeit in a harsher, more high contrast way. Particularly interesting in this image is the almost optical illusion-like effect in the way bands of rippling water in the foreground look dark or light depending on whether they are crossing the path of the reflected sun.

This attention to the act of looking is most pronounced in the aptly named Looking Glass Series, which I wrote about when images from this series were shown at City Gallery in 2007. For these shots, Crowley photographed through windows—often smeared with condensation or grease—and screens. Conceptually, the Looking Glass Series comments on the fact that our viewpoints are always filtered, whether through a physical object like these windows or our preexisting perceptual prejudices.

A concept is all well and good as far as it goes. But Crowley's conceptual vision is backed up by an aesthetic vision. Two images shown side by side here—"Shards" and "Streamers"—not only challenge the viewer to pierce the filter but also reward the eye with a pleasing play of colors, lines and shapes.

The Wider View Series piques the viewer's curiosity in a different way. With all these images the content is presented as though constructed of overlapping images a la David Hockney, jagged, irregular edges and all. I write, "as though constructed with overlapping images," because they appear to be single, rather than multiple, images. This is another level of artifice. Where the images in the Horizon Series and the Looking Glass Series prod us to see in a more active way, the irregular framing of the Wider View Series seems designed to disrupt a strictly pictorial appreciation of these particular landscapes.

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