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Tucson Weekly Unsentimental Seascapes

The current exhibition at Tucson's Center for Creative Photography offers visions rich and strange.

By Margaret Regan

APRIL 20, 1998:  IN SHAKESPEARE'S LATE play The Tempest, Ferdinand laments his father's death by drowning at sea. But a song drifting over the waves comforts him with these curious words: "Full fathom five thy father lies/...Nothing of him that doth fade/but doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange."

The beloved father's body has metamorphosed into the sea's treasures, his bones into coral, his eyes into pearls. An exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography has borrowed a fragment from these beautiful lines as a title for a show that navigates a parallel metamorphosis in contemporary photography. Sea Change: the Seascape in Contemporary Photography is a wonderful show that convincingly demonstrates that in the late 20th century, serious artists have turned their attention once again to the sea.

In venturing into the seascape, they're undeterred by the sea clichés in art, by the sailboats and crashing waves that are a "required decor in seaside motels," as curator Trudy Wilner Stack writes in her catalog essay. No, the 18 photographers unashamedly take pictures of water and foam and beach, of sky and infinite horizon. Yet they bring to their ocean explorations a modernist aesthetic at odds with the Sunday school of sea art: Their pictures are by turns minimalist or abstracted, chopped up and reassembled. They may be beautiful, but they're never sentimental.

Aided partly by new technology, by cameras that don't mind a dunk in the briny deep, such photographers as Liz Deschenes (born 1966) and Michael O'Brien (born 1962) get right out in the surf and shoot the waves all around them in brilliant color. Their pictures are purely sensory, giving viewers by proxy that exhilarating sense of being alive one draws from the ocean. In Deschenes' "Color Study No. 11," or O'Brien's untitled picture from 1995, you feel the slap of a wave, the salt in your eyes; you remember what it's like to be buoyant and to be somersaulted upside down by the rollers. "Color Study No. 11" is a symphony in turquoise that pictures a shimmering wave rising up, about to break.

O'Brien, a self-described surfer dude, rides out on his surfboard to the breakers, and shoots just before the wave rolls over. In his works, the spray against the sky, the curl of the wave, the stillness of the water below achieve some of the majesty of Asian landscape paintings.

But as sea lovers know, the ocean isn't always slap and dash. It's a point of tranquillity, its beaches a place for hours of dreamy reflection. Iain Stewart exhibits a series of nine incorporated color prints that explore the sea's capacity to mesmerize. Lined up in a row, the photos are almost abstractions, horizontal rectangles divided into sky above and sea below. Delicately tinted in blues to grays, they chart the most minute changes in color and atmosphere. A bench is placed nearby and you just want to sit there and contemplate the movements suggested by the pictures' titles, "Rhythm," "Shift," "Return."

Other photographers have issued sharper challenges to convention. Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese photog who now lives in New York City, almost makes the sea disappear in a series of five, velvety dark gelatin silver prints. Like Stewart, Sugimoto converts the two bars of sky and sea into geometric horizontal bands, but Sugimoto comes closer to minimalist black paintings, with only faint concessions to content. Fernando La Rosa, a Peruvian accustomed to foggy Lima, disrupts the clear air of other seas with blurry lenses that introduce a vertical line ("Gulf of Mexico"), or else serves them up piecemeal. In "Four Squares, Jamaica," he's covered up the sea with a cloth or paper: We get only four postcard-size glimpses through holes in the cover.

Robbert Flick goes further in an attack on the sea's eternal horizontals. In "Surf1.Var2," he's cut up pictures of rolling waves into 48 tiny rectangles, and reassembled them into a grid. The Starn twins, Doug and Mike, defy the notion of the sacred print with scotch tape. Their "Ocean in Fog," a toned gelatin silver print that edges toward sepia, is a series of small prints taped together. The work is an alluring panorama of choppy waves, receding from darkness in the foreground to pale fog in the distance.

Why the sea, and why now? Wilner Stack, who conceived the show and borrowed mostly from artists and galleries to assemble it, suggests that in an age of environmental degradation artists are attracted by the undeniably raw power of the pure ocean. The photographers certainly have turned their backs on our desecrated shorelines, on the cheap amusements and expensive condos, sewage plants and trash barges that sully the sea's waters.

Shooting from their vantage points on shore, in the shallows and in the deep, these photographers locate in their viewfinders no boats, no people, not even any birds. They venture out to where the sea is new. Like Turner, the painter who found the sublime in the ocean's misty atmospherics, the new sea artists make of the sea something rich and strange indeed.

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