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[Art reviews]

Photography’s future?
Ackroyd and Harvey, Gary Schneider, Nubar Alexanian


" Presence "
Photosynthetic works by Heather Ackroyd and Daniel Harvey. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through December 30.
" Hand Mouth "
Photographs by Gary Schneider. At Howard Yezerski Gallery through November 27
" Gloucester Photographs "
By Nubar Alexanian. At Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester, through January 30.

A lot has been made of the current artist-in-residence exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum because Heather Ackroyd and Daniel Harvey create photographs in grass. No, they don’t operate cameras made out of hardened hemp, and neither do they take pictures amid willowy plants on a windy savannah. In a feat of photo transfer that’s in every sense groundbreaking, Ackroyd and Harvey have figured out how to make growing grass replicate a photographic image.

At one end of the small, boxy room where their nine creations hang, an eight-foot triptych depicts the volume-cramped Crawford Bookcase from the museum’s Blue Room gallery; it’s flanked by two similarly huge panels depicting the museum’s 12th-century Spanish wooden exit doors. The triptych’s medium, in each of its panels, is live grass. On the side walls of the same room, two pairs of portraits face each other. One pair depicts head shots of busts on display in the museum; the other pair depicts two head shots of the living — one of a member of the Gardner’s staff, the other of a visitor. All four are rendered in grass. The two other frames display a Madonna and child (Ms. Ackroyd and her daughter — grass) and a wall-size stretch of text from Canto IV of Dante’s Inferno — grass).

No one considers Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing suit from the point of view of fashion design, and rightly so. Its ambitions were functional. And no one listens to, say, King Missile’s " Detachable Penis " for a lesson in human anatomy. Its ambitions are æsthetic. Yet one of the many ironies about the attention paid to Ackroyd & Harvey’s photo exhibit is that its scientific oddity casts a long shadow over how we ought to see and respond to it — namely as art.

The experience of these grass images borders on the sepulchral. It’s impossible to see them without being aware that sometime soon they’ll wither and die. An older version of the Madonna and child greets you in an antechamber to the gallery. Although a dim image of the child remains, the mother’s face has disappeared, erased by floral demise.

This sepulchral sense is only accentuated by the living works. The artists, I suspect, could have used cacti or orchids, even fern. Instead, they’ve hit on accelerated mortality — Buddhist sand paintings meet bonsai. That ephemerality combines with something else about the work: though the artists call their medium " grass, " it’s actually something closer to alfalfa sprouts, those angel-hair germinations that resemble tufts of coarse cotton more than a golf course’s buzz cut. They are, in other words, plain hard-to-see- vaporous, wispy, evanescent. No matter what your distance from these images, they never come into focus, and that’s part of their intrigue, especially when the images depict living people. Live grass, images of actual breathing human beings, state-of-the-art photography techniques, and a result that’s as dreamy and elusive as memory itself.

The strength of this exhibit lies in the way Ackroyd and Harvey exploit our own need to see. Nobody gets irritated when a landscape or a seascape or an abstraction fails to come into focus. But when it’s a human face, statuesque or real, or an actual place or a genuine text, then the desire to see becomes importunate. " Presence " denies us that seeing, and in that denial we are made to confront the very musculature of our bodies’ wanting to focus.

The weakness of the exhibit (beyond the gratuitous surliness of the guards — do they think they’ll get their Vermeer back by barking at patrons?) lies in its traditional imagery, its traditional setting. Imagine, having figured out how to impose photographs on the life cycle of grass, what the possibilities are, what you could do: every cemetery offers an extraordinary opportunity, every manicured lawn an easel, every highway median and public park a chance to speak. Perhaps that will come. If it does, Ackroyd and Harvey will deserve to take over the world.

GARY SCHNEIDER’S PHOTOS are far less showy and considerably less outré than their counterparts at the Gardner. And though there’s no competition between the two (if anything, the opposite — their spirits conflate), Schneider’s ability to marry technology with self-expression may well prove a redwood to Ackroyd & Harvey’s grass.

To leave " Presence " is to feel vaguely haunted — that unanticipated moment in the morning when last night’s dreams suddenly and momentarily come to mind, only to elude your memory. To leave " Hand Mouth, " on the other hand, is to feel assaulted, skewered on someone else’s sharp, inescapable æsthetic. You may want to forget, but you can’t.

As with the unfolding of many artistic careers, Schneider’s " Hand Mouth " represents a slight but significant departure from " Genetic Self-Portraits, " his deservedly acclaimed book and attendant exhibits from 1999. " Genetic Self-Portraits " featured formal, complex, kinetic, black-and-white abstractions that, on inspection, revealed themselves as microscopic representations of the artist — or representations of the artist under a microscope.

" Hand Mouth " goes beyond Schneider’s own body, way beyond. It includes a remarkable family tree — seven handprints of the Yezerski family, from grandparents to grandchildren — as well as blown-up (i.e., exaggerated in size) body parts of other people close to the artist. Outstanding among those is a four-part wall panel of someone’s lower face: prominent teeth, searing lips, defined jaw. The towering work reads as a cross between Cecil B. DeMille and an orthodontist’s slide sleeve, small features writ the size of Goliath — it feels at once histrionic and historic, evidentiary and expressive. It’s with images like these that we identify our destroyed dead.

These days, that evidentiary aspect of Schneider’s images makes them seem most prescient — as so many people continue to struggle, directly or indirectly, to identify the deceased. Oversized and black and white, with the contrast turned up so high it almost hurts to look at them, his pictures are actually reverse negatives (not to be confused with positives). In other words, where the thumbs and fingers and forearms and lips press against Schneider’s photographic surfaces, they deposit their impressions in dark, beaded, luminous, liquid patterns. In turn, these patterns exist against ghostly backdrops of their own surrounding flesh — of face or fingers or arm. The stark, dark foregrounds seen against their whited-out backgrounds suggest objects or body parts in the first stage of sinking into a deep, tideless lake.

Whereas " Presence " enjoys the measured, even dignified quietude of natural decay, " Hand Mouth " feels like a field of a different sort, one where human remains lie strewn from a plane wreck. The disturbing physicality of Gary Schneider’s work makes " Hand Mouth " almost overwhelming.

WHEN I FIRST SAW Nubar Alexanian’s tender and astute new Gloucester Photographs (Walker Creek Press, available at, I had a sense of moving backward in time. Images of clam diggers on mud flats, beachgoers surrounding a giant sand sculpture in the shape of a deformed man, teenagers in the back of a rented limousine on prom night — all could be 50 years old, others even older. None is. Alexanian’s new book and the show that commemorates it pay homage to a city and perhaps a way of life in decline: Gloucester is a community where people live near their relatives, visit their neighbors, worship together. What could be stranger? One thing: Alexanian’s treatment of fish, their eyes, their fins, their beheaded bodies being cleaned. They’re not so different from Alexanian’s human subject matter: endangered, atavistic, communal — as riveting as it is forlorn.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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