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Mystery and its Opposite



To the casual observer, art photography and photographic art might appear to be one and the same thing. But no, odd as it sounds, it just doesn't work that way. Although Ernesto Pujol's American Fields at Heriard-Cimino is mostly made up of photographs (he hedges his bets a bit with a few cast aluminum ears of corn), he is in fact a conceptual artist, and his oversized color photos of some corn fields and a stadium in New Jersey are presumably meant as documentation of a concept despite their painterly dimensions.

Seemingly disparate at first, the skeletal order of the stadium and its seats soon begins to complement the neat green rows of corn, and so the point is made: the imposed geometry of commerce and technology has now trumped what was once wild nature's domain. (This is news?) And there is a pleasant if rather sterile matter of factness about all this, a deadpan literalism that is a hallmark of postmodern conceptualism.

But where the most notable practitioners of such large-scale, hyper-real, socially informed photography -- mostly Germans such as Thomas Struth and mentors Bernd and Hilla Becher -- are fanatical in their insight and craft, Pujol's stuff remains tentatively workmanlike. Where Struth and the Bechers employ an "anonymous" style that they make uniquely their own, Pujol's style is merely anonymous, period.

His resume suggests that he knows how to play the postmodernist game -- the academic Pomo crowd can be as clannishly self-supportive as the neo-conservative Mafia -- but that doesn't always make for the most exciting art to actually to look at in either case. It's a pleasant enough show (in a sense not unlike what British food critic John Lanchester calls "the hearty blandness of American cuisine"), though some may come away with the feeling that we've been down this road more than a few times before.

Contrarily, Debbie Fleming Caffery's photos at Arthur Roger reflect a neo-romantic mode of art photography that is surprisingly prevalent today. Overtly pictorial, yet psychological and sometimes darkly beautiful, Caffery's images deal with what she calls "shades of mystery and shadow," as seen in her large-format coffee-table book, The Shadows, now in its second edition. Mostly shot in south Louisiana and Mexico with forays into Italy and Portugal, her photos view a world in perpetual twilight. Untitled (Woman With Pearls) (Louisiana), is an image of an affable matron in black, her face a cubist blur of perhaps once-coquettish features floating above a baroque filigree of pearl necklace. Her white-gloved hand at the edge of her table is startling in its glowing opacity, and the rest is a sea of shadows set off by the outline of a sleek Rogers and Astaire-like dancing couple stenciled on the wall. While buoyant, the matron's age and optics-blurred face is ghostly, not unlike those momento mori skulls of Dutch baroque still-life paintings, but with painted dancers instead of fruit and flowers.

Youth is emphasized in Man Plaiting Girl's Hair (Louisiana), a view of a slender girl's bare back and shoulders, head patiently poised, as the gnarly hands of a much older man weave her thick black strands into a neat braid in what must be a timeless Acadian ritual. But here again the effect is of mystery enforced by the slightly askance angle of view, like those liminal moments when the eye registers things that cannot be neatly classified, and so end up in memory as poetic embers that smolder unnoticed until they finally rekindle as a dream, a flashback or deja vu.

For Caffery, even bright daylight doesn't dispel mystery, as we see in Untitled (Stockings in Sand) (Portugal), in which a pair of shapely female calves in black stockings emerge from a dark skirt to recline against the coarsely textured sand of a Portuguese beach. Unlike the fluid blurs of so many of her photos, here everything is sharply etched, yet the image itself is as enigmatic as one of Man Ray's sexy surrealist tableaus of the 1930s. And it's that elegantly mysterious and psychological quality that engages the eye and challenges consciousness to stretch into place where nothing is quantified and truth is registered in shades of light and shadow.

The images in Debbie Fleming Caffery's work, such as Untitled (Woman With Pearls), deal with what she calls "shades of mystery and shadow."
  • The images in Debbie Fleming Caffery's work, such as Untitled (Woman With Pearls), deal with what she calls "shades of mystery and shadow."

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