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Black, White and Grey

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The phrase "black and white" has a ring of finality. While it traditionally connotes contrast, stark oppositions or lately even "moral clarity," much depends on the context. In photography, black and white was once all there was, but over time color became more and more pervasive. In recent decades, however, black-and-white photography has bounced back with a vengeance, while prints and drawings have remained largely monochromatic all along. In a world of rampant sensory overload, black and white may seem refreshingly simple and straightforward, but is it?

The answer, as usual, is maybe. The most widely circulated icon of black and whiteness is the east Asian yin-yang symbol, a circle divided by an S-curve divided into stark black and white halves. To Westerners they may look mutually exclusive, but, as a whole, it is actually a symbol of mutual interdependence. In philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism it is believed that you can't have one without the other, just as you can't have day without night, so neither side can vanquish the other. It's that simple, but like all truth, it's ironic, nuanced and not at all simplistic. More than just an absence of color, black and white can be an organizing concept with a wide range of ramifications.

For the Cole Pratt Gallery it meant a cool idea for a long, hot summer. The current show, logically titled Black & White, is a collection of photographs, prints and drawings that informally explore the sensual and conceptual variations of the theme. For Jaclyn Cori, it is all about light and shadow. Part of the current wave of hyper-poetic, neo-romantic art photography, Cori creates images that evoke fragmentary scenes from old Bergman movies or Dylan Thomas poems, mini-intrigues seen through a glass darkly.

In The Day the Moon Went Away, an enshadowed figure grasps an oversized bouquet of flowers exploding in a dazzling beam of light. All you really notice is the nicely formed female hands clutching the brilliant blossoms. In the background a head appears in a doorway, looking ghostly, and the whole thing has that dreamy, vertiginous, lost-at-sea quality of disjointed poems or laudanum inspired daydreams. What's it all about? According to Cori, it's part of a series "about a romantic relationship that began on the evening of a lunar eclipse and ended on an evening of betrayal and infidelity." All of which provoked Dark as Dark Can Be, June, an image of a blurred female figure in a long white gown striding into the shadows.

Such dramatic content seems a far cry from David Nestor's platinum prints of magnolia buds starting to blossom. Photographed with an old Diana, a cheap Chinese camera prized for its mystically soft lens, the magnolias are explored not only for their formal and atmospheric qualities, but also for their status as Southern icons. Perhaps intended as an antidote to the kitsch magnolia cliches of the Deep South, Nestor's images are as poetic as Cori's but dispassionate, transcendental in their apparent simplicity. And it's fascinating to compare their silky pale forms to the equally pale and silky forms of Kate Sartor Hillburn's nudes, close-ups of classical female torsos with titles like Hourglass and the like. From a distance one might possibly confuse the fleshly magnolias with the no less pale and rounded female forms. There are also parallels with the austere yet sensual lines of Kathy Wolf's beach scenes, undulating sand dunes spawning marsh grasses or consuming fences in their relentless sensual embrace.

Most formal of all are John Lawrence's architectonic shadows of shutters and woodwork aligned in slightly askew grids like the renovations of some crazed Creole carpenter inspired by Piranesi's fantastical prison complexes. Also formal and poetic, if a tad campy, are Roberto Rincon's starkly rendered images of Japanese umbrellas, ornate silk shawls and palm fronds, frivolously elegant items like a photo-inventory of props from the Krewe of St. Ann parade. Campy as well, but hilariously so, are John Hamilton's finely rendered pencil drawings of 1940s and 1950s vacation scenes like products of a latter-day Paul Cadmus with a crosshatching fetish. Lorelei, a full-figured sea nymph clutching a conch shell, may be Hamilton's final word on the bathing beauty mystique. All in all, this is a refreshing summer show that is unified by its cohesive concept, and by the subtle shades of gray that "black and white" contains.

John Hamilton's pencil drawing Lorelei provides the artist's unique (and hilarious) comment on the bathing beauty mystique.
  • John Hamilton's pencil drawing Lorelei provides the artist's unique (and hilarious) comment on the bathing beauty mystique.

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