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Unmined Territory

Two photographers take risks in Light Factory exhibit

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Two photographers, now showing at the Light Factory through January 17, artists ask you to look hard at their images. Appreciation for either man's art doesn't come without a little work. Both artists use the medium of photography to deliver a message that has little to do with sharing information, and much to do with sharing a personal vision. Both are either incidentally or intentionally iconoclastic, both wield a mastery of technical facility with their chosen media, and neither yields his goods in a lance.

Stephen Petegorsky and Elijah Gowin offer more than the solely aesthetic or fundamentally communicative use of the medium in order to show us an alternate, internal reality. The medium is not the message here, only the transport vehicle. We're hitchhikers; wise hitchhikers are wary.

All of Stephen Petegorsky's photographs are gilded. It's risky wrapping everything in gold, as everything around the gold is reduced, or facetiously elevated, by association. To use gold successfully, the artist has to overcome the precious metal, overcome the ohh! and ahh! factor of the seductive material.

What Petegorsky does is illuminate a single image on the rough gold surface. Each image is embedded in and suspended on a gold ground which itself is pocked, scratched, mottled, rubbed, pitted and polished. Each is in 8x10-inch format inside a black frame. Pigments show through the gold leaf -- orange, blues, greens -- the slight color lending age and depth to the image.

The images -- a dog's tail, a child walking or swimming, a dead bird, a starfish or a tulip -- aren't transformed by the gold leaf, but are made to be seen again, begging re-examination.

Petegorsky takes another risk here. The risk of becoming precious, the risk of asking to be hugged and cuddled, to be thought of as special, elevated, singular. To be coveted and protected. That's a kiss of death for contemporary art -- we don't hug and coddle our art. If it's lovable or precious, it's dying.

Petegorsky escapes that doom by embracing it. I suspect he didn't do so accidentally, oblivious to thoughts of a cynical eye seeing the gold as a lush gimmick. He took a risk and, in most of the images, he succeeds. The gold ground is the initial draw, and each image is elevated, made special, as it floats in a lush sea of gold leaf. But precious? No. The secret and silent pantheist in each of us may see a little of God's work in the scratching dog, the blackbird and the laughing child, but the work doesn't ask for a hug.

The best works are photos of his son, Mike. Mike with his friend Gus, two laughing faces pasted on long shadows in the sand. Mike walking and swimming, the infant Mike on his back naked and surprised, bent legs suspended, his tiny beautiful body robust and vulnerable. These are sketches from this boy's childhood which deserve the regal gold ground surrounding them. The images approach adorable, but thankfully stop short at poignant.

"Hymnal of Dreams" is the title Elijah Gowin gives to his series of photographs. Gowin tells us in his notes he was raised in the northern United States by southern parents, and has "always considered my Southern roots to provide a true sense of home and place." He goes on to say, "In my mind's eye, this landscape is thick and tangled, as are recollections of the place and family I knew as a boy. I want to understand my human connection to this geography as a new place; a realm where dreams and memories are given a material presence."

Gowin's photographs are theater. He uses the medium to document a reality he has created through rearranging familiar and not so familiar images. His theater sets are arranged. He explains his process:

"I often begin with found objects, reconfiguring them in fabricated scenes. As I cut, bind, pile, or suspend these materials, I retain a sense of their original shape and meaning while also creating new forms that reference the southern landscape."

"Construction [still], 1995," is a photographed tableau that provides a glimpse into Gowin's reconstructed vision of the South. He remakes a hallowed and reviled Southern tradition -- moonshining -- into a place he can call home.

A large white steel bowl is alight with fire. Suspended above the flame is a gallon jug, half-filled with a black liquid. Plastic and copper tubes run from the mouth of the jug and spiral down and around the flame. On the table holding the bowl are Mason jars, needle-nose pliers, a screwdriver, a wax candle, solder wire, shotgun shells. A hatchet hangs from a rope adjacent the makeshift still. The tableau is surrounded by canvas and gives the impression of a makeshift interior, a hastily constructed tent. The liquor still doesn't look like it works. It looks like a child's labor of love, a contraption that feigns utility, a toy for an excitable grown up. This is theater and the set is both perverse and alluring. The cozy, warm, glowing interior is inviting in spite of the central toxic brew. Or perhaps the home cooking makes the set more inviting. Gowin's cobbled-together, politically incorrect, factually questionable tableau is skewed reality with emotional resonance. Now that's traditional Southern cooking. It reminds me of Picasso's line of tripe that I realized much later actually to have a slim margin of truth: "Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth."

In "Vincent and Horse, 1994," Gowin depends more on the unadorned found object. A humble wooden structure, an outhouse perhaps, stands leaning and dry-rotted in the woods. The roof is a tangled, gnarled vine reaching into the doorless opening. A string hangs from the obscured door header with a toy horse dangling in the dark interior. It's a recent relic of unknown use, constructed quickly, soon abandoned. The toy horse guards an entry no one would consider breaching. It's backwoods child's play, remote and sad and forgotten, a dead-on reminder of our own ill-conceived plans. It's a piece of the South I remember from my own wanderings.

My favorite photograph has little to do with the South, but much to do with the non-geography of lunacy. "Bomb, 1999" is ridiculous and frightening, a laugh cut short by the new sobriety we've inherited since September 11. A skinny, shirtless, bearded white man lugs a massive bomb on his back. He holds the bomb with a chain wrapped over his padded shoulder. He is in the woods in front of a tired shack. The bomb is as big as he is, he appears determined and serious, straining to carry his precious load to its destination. He's a laughable casualty, or at least he was before terrorism had a bite in America. Now he's a scary irritant, one we need to heed reluctantly.

In keeping with the Light Factory's tradition, both of these photographers push the medium into unmined technical territory and sometimes shaky psychic ground. They both merit more than a glance. *

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