May is like a door opening to the pleasures of summer. May! April is so last month.
Photographic images are so utterly ubiquitous in art — and everywhere — and so wildly diverse in their intent and content that I just don’t think of photography as a singular medium with a singular historical trajectory. However, since the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, on from May 1 to 31, declares itself a “celebration of photography” I am playing along and thinking photography first, art second.
Ryerson Image Center
At the Ryerson Image Center I was transfixed before Phil Solomon’s eight channel piece called Empire X 8. All eight screens of the Salah J. Bashir New Media Wall display the same direct view of the Empire State Building, but the time of day is different, and evolving, on each. The continually changing environments — inky night where the building glitters like a jewel in the black sky, desperate grey dawn where scraps of garbage flutter on updrafts around the famous icon, rippling sunsets of orange and pink backlighting the building — play off one another, within the sleek matte grid of images.
Installation shot of Empire x 8 by Phil Solomon
The static shots are from uptown, facing toward lower Manhattan, but the peripheral landmarks seem wrong. The World Trade Center is gone and there is no sign of the Freedom Tower — so we have a time frame — but gone too is the World Financial Center, and hmmm, instead of the Hudson River banked by the shores of New Jersey, there appears to be a hulking military bargelike installation floating near the west side of the island. Small planes and choppers roam the sky. The soundtrack is weather only: wind, rain, rumbling thunder.
Still of single channel of Empire x 8 by Phil Solomon
For anyone who has been even mildly hooked on Grand Theft Auto this is familiar terrain; it’s a real (unreal) image, manufactured in some digital sweatshop somewhere, from one of the Liberty City Series. The images are so smooth, dense and controlled, endlessly fascinating to view, and like Andy Warhol’s famous 8 hour Empire movie of 1964, are a blank slate upon which so much meaning can be heaped.
Still from Empire 16 mm film by Andy Warhol
Also at the Ryerson Image Center are the photographs of Mark Rowedel, this year’s winner of the Scotiabank photography award. At first look the photographs of Mark Rowedel appear to be traditional fine art photography in the style of maybe Ansell Adams: technically masterful, documenting nature’s grandeur, black and white (mostly), devoid of humans or animals, deep, meditative.
Photograph by Mark Rowedel
Coming a little closer and the formal and compositional elements are seen to be bold and radical, particularly the use of deep black swaths of shadow enveloping the foreground, dramatic arcs, gaps and crosses.
Nevada Test Site Aluminum Bunker by Mark Rowedel
Closer still and these photographs release their emotional impact; often creating a sense of folly, loneliness, despair.
Oh-My-God Hot Springs #6 by Mark Rowedel
Central Pacific #18 from the Series “Westward the Course of Empire”
The stylized titled printed in pencil are sometimes hilarious. Could there really be a churned up expanse of desert known as ” The Devil’s Golf Course?”
The Devil’s Golf Course by Mark Rowedel
In other works Mark Rowedel gives a nod to Robert Smithson and Ed Ruscha adding another layer of interest to these intense photographs. They are in dialogue with important art of the recent past.