Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Photography as Magic Theater

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MAY 18, 1998:  Although art writing often tries to make sense of things that do not always seem to make much sense, certain artists defy routine interpretation. For instance, I've admired Jerry Uelsmann's photographs for most of my life, yet I've never really known what to make of them. Although his highly polished photo-montages mostly come across as magical scenes -- visions of places and things that resemble unlikely mixtures of other places and things -- the peculiarity of his approach is in a class by itself.

When faces and torsos appear in boulders, when bodies of water give birth to nubile nudes, and when neo-classic architecture arises from the trunks of ancient trees, we are confronted with Uelsmann's signature contradictions. But that is the easy part, and it pales in comparison to his seamless but goofy union of styles, a maniacal mix of Ansel Adams and Rene Magritte. Which is like apples and oranges, oil and water, or Pink Floyd performing John Denver.

Hallucinogenic in effect, his more routine photos evoke old record album jackets or science-fiction illustrations (sort of like J.K. Potter or H.R. Giger, but without the gore). Although most are technically either interiors or exteriors, all are really interiors in the sense that they are dreamscapes from the inner sanctum of the imagination. Even so, some can seem almost extroverted.

In an untitled nude from 1992, a mountain stream miraculously gives birth to a slumbering sprite, her smooth, pale skin gleaming in the frothy whitewater like Venus arising from sea foam. The mountains behind her are like Ansel Adams outtakes, yet the nude herself suggests a studio shoot. Whether this is art, kitsch or contrivance depends entirely on your mood, your ability to suspend disbelief -- a device more common to theater than to visual art. Either way, it is pure Uelsmann, who has an endearing carnival magician sensibility. (Ironically, his pristine darkroom technique casts even such minor disparities into high relief.)

Contrivance is used to good effect in Memories of Max Ernst, a phantasmagoria of ravens, tunnels, hands, eyes and an old photo album from a family of cyclops. Here, the kitschy aspect adds to the Twilight Zone atmosphere, which is especially apt in regards to Ernst, who made a career out of recycling junk-store graphics into Dadaist collages. Like so much surrealism, Memories is overtly kitschy, yet it also is one of the stronger pieces in the show.


Ueslman's Nudes, such as this untitled work, often present a photographic puzzle.
When Uelsmann started out almost 40 years ago, the clean, stark "modernism" of Adams and Weston was the only style, and his photo-montages were out of step with the times. Today, his seamless kind of dream realism turns up all over (especially in advertising), only now it is mostly done digitally -- with a computer, not a darkroom -- so Uelsmann is still out of step with the times. Very consistent. Although I still don't know what to make of it, the sheer showmanship and technical prowess seen in his best work can be a joy to behold.

Stylistically, the man is a UFO. While he approaches narrative art, or even the magic realism of Latin fiction, Uelsmann is ultimately a school unto himself. Related, if more literary, sentiments might apply to Keith Carter, whose photos appear around the corner at Bassetti Fine Arts. Though Carter has produced much in an almost documentary or narrative vein, the new works seen here are really rather weird -- sometimes impressively so.

Poetic and diffuse, Carter's pictures evoke people and places out of time, ordinary objects and minor mysteries like dreams left imprinted on the retina upon waking. Filled with diffuse insights, like the peripheral vision of a child poet, these images possess a nostalgic evanescence that somehow suggests Rimbaud or even Proust (although most of this stuff hails from Carter's east Texas hometown of Beaumont -- Janis Joplin country!).

Some of the most haunting images are among the most ordinary. Tango, 1995 reveals a middle-aged gent whose swarthily dapper profile only partially conceals the head and arms of a woman whose dance posture mirrors his. A classic tango embrace, the mood is as somnambulistic as a slow waltz, perhaps because the man's sense of reverie is so oblivious and evocative. Like Brassai's Paris in the 1930s, or Ralph Gibson's Mexico, this documents something more ineffable than any particular time or place.

Water Watching, 1996 depicts a hulking figure wagging dousing rods like a maniac in a Stephen King flick. Ominously shadowy, this evokes the dark poetry of the land, a look that relates to the even darker poetry of Louisiana's Debbie Flemming Caffery, although Carter and Caffery are very different artists. A former child photographer by trade, Carter is a child photographer still, only now it is the child who is father to the man: a precocious poet of dislocated reveries and silent somnambulistic tangos.


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