Hill Center focuses on the digital arts this spring with a variety of solo exhibitions dedicated to photography and photo montage. Spreading across the three floors of this Civil War-era building, the eight local artists present a variety of photographic approaches, from traditional still life with delicate shadows to vibrant digitally manipulated images with coded sociological underpinnings. Though their content varies, the works can nominally be sorted into two camps as follows: representational imagery and fantastical manipulations of reality. The former group consists primarily of still life and landscape imagery, with works by Larry O’Reilly and Rindy Obrien among the highlights. Their photographs present discernible visual scenes that allow the viewer to focus on the subtleties of light and color rather than decipher meaning or intent.
The four “fantastical” artists require a more critical eye to distill their ideas, which in some ways makes their work more engaging for the viewer. Monica Servaites’ exhibition Downside Up displays recognizable elements of the architecture just visible outside the Hill Center’s doors. Within each of the 15 photos the viewer can just make out the bricks forming the facades of row houses and the sidewalks of the neighborhood. These fractured snippets of architecture shimmer in and out of reality, with the buildings juxtaposed at incongruous angles to the brick sidewalks. The images are further destabilized by the clashing scales of the brick patterns as they abut one another. Reflections #1 for example displays a brick wall rising up to the top of image contrasted with a more horizontally-sequenced section of brick in the lower quarter of the work; a pronounced dividing line is apparent where the two sections meet.
That abrupt division of facade and sidewalk results from the clever use of a water puddle as a reflective device. Further consideration of other images in the Reflections series demonstrates that a water element plays a central role in each image. Water reflects and refracts the manmade environment, presenting a fantasy space in which the viewer can no longer trust their visual sense to distinguish the permanent world from Servaites’ ephemeral environments. True to her exhibition’s title, in the artist’s imagination empirical definitions of up, down, vertical and horizontal become skewed as the heavens are brought firmly down to a ground out of proportion to the fixed architecture that rests upon it. Flouting gravitational conventions, Servaites encourages the viewer to reconsider how they interact with the world around them.
While similarly focused on architectural shapes, Jane Mann’s Layers II is more preoccupied with how we perceive the past rather than the present. Here representations of common architectural forms layer atop another, commingling both historical time periods and the cultural ethos that accompanied them. Evora, for example, features a series of arched windows and doorways that meld together via a strong vertical axis of tonal demarcation just to the right of center. While the image recalls a fanciful stage set for an historical drama it also underscores the cultural clashes that shaped the sweeping arc of medieval history, where victorious nation-states built upon the remnants of the vanquished.
Those cultural connotations are further emphasized in Venice 3 and The Alentejo—two works that underscore the role of religion in shaping our views of history. Venice 3 focuses our attention on the architecture of Saint Mark’s Basilica, the colors digitally manipulated to highlight the lower west façade while the dome recedes in the background. Not only do the high-heat tones of magenta and orange create visual depth within the work, they burnish the architecture with a patina of age while emphasizing the angels’ forms that rise above the portico. Religious iconography is even more overt in The Alentejo where angelic figures praying before a cross are juxtaposed with what appears to be weathered window shutters under a peeling pediment. Here Mann contrasts notions of sacred and profane, pointing to the central role religious convictions play in the shaping of culture.
Bruce McNeil is similarly interested in using visual layers to impart a story. While he also utilizes historical references, McNeil’s works included in In the Land of Eden evoke a more contemporary narrative than Mann’s, clearly demonstrating how historical events continue to resonate in modern political and social circumstances. Village Transport digitally incorporates modern and historic modes of movement in a culturally-loaded critique of the African American experience. The iconic tiles of a domed Washington, DC metro station form the backdrop of the piece, with an image of a metro train superimposed along the bottom of the image. The train appears blurred, giving the work a dynamic sense of movement from left to right. second horizontal band featuring blue-gray cloud-like formations parallels the train. Upon closer inspection, the blue-gray band creates the ground on which slaves march. The intent to highlight the horrors of slavery is underscored by the icon in the lower right of the image, which includes a pictograph discussing the housing of slaves on a British ship. An African tribal mask framed in the rightmost metro window along with a lioness hovering over the left side of the train shift our thinking of the metro as solely modern transport. Is McNeil suggesting that our modern Metro is a still segregated entity? While the answer is uncertain, it is clear that McNeil believes we cannot understand our contemporary circumstances without acknowledging their historical roots.
A more generalist mining of recent history is on display in Read the News Today, Oh Boy! which also uses a metro station backdrop as canvas to overlay political events. Snippets of ceiling tile and blinking arrival lights form strong horizontal bands upon which are staged variety of bellicose images. What appears to be a moving metro train displays culturally-loaded figures (including Barack Obama and Malcolm X) directly above black and white shots of war. Walking in front of those black and white images along the metro track are refugees carrying their sole belongings. Finally, old newspapers lay strewn across the platform at the bottom of the image. The scale of these juxtaposed images, particularly in the center of the work, suggest billboards, reducing the raw suffering of war to advertising images that fade into the background. The viewer is thus reduced to spectator, experiencing rapid-fire images as quickly as thumbing through a social media feed. While the news is morose, McNeil suggests we tune out at our own peril, reduced to repeating the past unless we fully wake up to the present.
Rounding out the “fantastical artists” is Karen Cohen, whose works bridge the gap between representation and composite imagery. Her exhibition Surreality features landscapes with clearly identifiable components (the New York Skyline, walkers on a beach) rendered somewhat abstractly through color manipulation. Time Waits for No One in particular is notable in the way uses pink hues to cast an otherworldly sheen onto a sandy beach. Ironically by sticking so closely to pictorial convention, Cohen feels the least surreal of the four artists. While all the artist displayed generate beautiful images in their own right, Servaites, Mann and McNeil stand out for their unique visual critiques of the world around them.
Hill Center Galleries’ spring exhibitions are on view through April 29, 2018. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner Image: “Village Transport” (detail) by Bruce McNeil. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com