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Understated dramas
Photographs by Peter Kayafas and Tama Hochbaum
"Peter Kayafas: Selected Photographs, 1992–2004"
"Tama Hochbaum: Claire with Flowers"
At Gallery Kayafas 450 Harrison Avenue in Boston, through April 1.

One person’s scandal is another person’s shrug. Impute steroid use to a professional baseball player or cyclist and the cameras click, investigations loom, and careers get shaky. Impute the same to an artist and nobody notices. I don’t mean that artists are suddenly shooting up growth hormones or anabolic steroids before picking up their brushes and their cameras. But the trend toward inflated size — pioneered by visionaries like Christo and Jeanne-Claude and imitated by a generation or two of careerists — deserves to be seen as an analogue to what’s happening in sports. The behemoth installations, the C-prints the size of refrigerators, the paintings and sculpture and mixed-media work that make viewers feel like pebbles in an elephant’s foot, all point to a different kind of unfairness. We’re mammals; dwarf us to induce vulnerability.

So it was with no small wonder that I realized while walking among the sharp and poignant black-and-white photographs of Peter Kayafas that I actually wanted some of them even bigger. Kayafas is an artist who keeps his strength in check. The solitary, thin, white-haired old man with his back to us looking out across an expanse of ocean from a seawall in Havana resonates with such understated wistfulness and frailty and — dare one say it — hope that it could occupy twice as many square inches. (In its current incarnation it measures in, as do all the pictures in the front gallery, at 16 by 20 inches.) Similarly, the ecstasy of two boys caught mid air and identically positioned as they’re about to dive into the ocean — it’s like a retelling of Superman except the magic is fleeting and shared and real — could also occupy a larger frame without sacrificing any of its forlorn excitement.

When Kayafas isn’t making you wish for more, he’s delivering seemingly straightforward images that at first look like charming if slightly wry documentaries — a cigar-chomping geezer in front of a cashier’s booth at a gas station, a girl leaping into a water-filled quarry, a road sign — and end up being complex and engrossing tableaux vivants. The old man, in his vertiginous array of striped and checkered and otherwise patterned clothes, stands before a window so chock full of signage — printed ads, handwritten warnings, labels, clocks — that he almost blends in. Gradually out of the modulated confusion grows the man’s expression, his eyes. The artist meets his subject at eye level, and though the background may be dizzying, the face is imperturbable, the gaze steady, good-humored, mischievous, and wise. The girl who’s about to make a splash isn’t diving; she’s not even looking down. She’s plummeting as if she were walking along and just happened to find herself falling. It’s no surprise. Looking straight ahead, she wears the expression of someone who knows all her pleasures will be temporary.

What could be less remarkable than a freestanding road sign with some evangelical message in the American South? Not much, unless you’re taking in Peter Kayafas’s Mississippi, 1998. In it, the words "Lines To Live By" perch atop five rows where a message ought to but doesn’t appear. The result is that the photograph induces a discomforting expectancy, as if by waiting long enough we’ll get to see what those lines are. Either that, or the lines are gone forever: there are no longer any lines to live by; moral purpose doesn’t exist. The achievement of Mississippi, 1998 lies in an gracious, easy-going, nonchalant humor that slowly transforms into a complex drama. It’s also something of a signature piece of Kayafas’s, a marriage of down-home ribaldry and existential doubt, gritty, sensual spiritedness alongside the threat of meaninglessness and despair. Instead of canceling each other out, those elements work together to charge Kayafas’s photos with intensity and drama. They’re as initially unassuming as they are ultimately powerful.

The first half of Kayafas’s exhibit, which he shares in the main gallery with Tama Hochbaum, represents a sampling of photographs taken from his travels to Cuba, Romania, and the American South. One of the engaging and astute aspects of this body of work is its willingness to be awestruck, its embrace of the strange, which seen from a different angle is an admission of being an outsider. Most people who take vacation pictures, pros and shutterbugs alike, recast the unknown as if it were familiar, and that’s what makes most holiday shots look alike. Kayafas has the temerity to go beyond acknowledging his estrangement; he finds ways to celebrate it. The hushed assembly of Romanian peasants in their embroidered finery walking along an unpaved road on Easter morning is his answer to "Lines To Live By." In Surdesti, 2004, we see intimacy on the grand scale, a shared purpose, a common culture; the men and women are undoubtedly heading to church, and their nearness to one another combines with the surrounding fog to make you think that if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear them whisper. Virginia Woolf quipped that it takes a stranger to know a place. Kayafas’s pictures are rich in knowledge.

The restraint of these travel photographs — their meditations on time and sensuality and place — gives way in the back gallery to something close to abandonment. Gone are the pictures’ frames; gone are the measured, distant shots; gone are the muted grays, the reduced brightness and contrast. Gone too is the uniform size. Kayafas’s candid portraits of his fellow New Yorkers — open-mouthed, upright, and asleep on a park bench; middle-aged, coiffed in a kerchief-covered beehive and outfitted in tight-fitting Persian lamb while wearing an expression last seen at the Salem witch trials — enjoy the startling immediacy of real life on a city street. Candid is just the beginning.

Kayafas’s New Yorkers fall into two categories. Either they’re entirely unaware of the photographer’s presence — the raptor-like expression of the woman selecting apples, the kissing couple, the woman on the pay phone hearing bad news — or, more rarely, they’re talking to him. The pedestrians who pass by so preoccupied as not to have noticed their picture being taken make you feel you’ve been delivered into somebody else’s thoughts. Others, like the old, animated couple behind eyeglasses the size of windshields, are fully conscious of the attention they’re being paid. The man gestures with his index finger; he’s got a point to make. The woman smiles feebly and looks away. It’s as if the artist were saying that we get to know some people by catching them off guard, others by engaging.

IF KAYAFAS’S STILL LIFES and landscapes suggest portraits — the Havana balcony with its hanging clothes, the stretch of white crosses along an empty Mississippi road — Tama Hochbaum’s portraits suggest still lifes. In her current work, Hochbaum shoots close-ups of a variety of flowers and slightly less proximate pictures of her eight-year-old daughter, Claire. Yet emptiness in the form of large expanses of white space is at least as important as content in nearly all of her frames, giving both her flowers and her offspring the feel of something vaporous.

Hochbaum’s interest in form (as opposed to Kayafas’s interest in humanity) drives her image making. In one series of four photos, Hochbaum allows only traces of Claire’s body to be seen. In one picture, eyes look out from a largely obliterated face; in another, feet rise into the air as if they were balloons about to float away. The effect is both gentle and gently disconcerting. What we see of the girl in these painterly, mellifluent, almost abstract photos at times suggests the remains from a plane crash, so much is missing. Hochbaum’s flowers — they range in size from about three to 30 inches — are frothy, delicate, sexual confections that enjoy the shadowy richness of graphite.

Issue Date: March 18 - 24, 2005
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