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Tucson Weekly Master Of Craft

Like The People She Photographed, Laura Volkerding Is Immortalized In The Tools Of Her Trade.

By Margaret Regan

JULY 20, 1998:  IN THE LATTER part of her life, photographer Laura Volkerding came upon the subject that she seemed to have been preparing for her whole career.

Volkerding was a lecturer at Stanford University when the university commissioned a copy of Rodin's "Gates of Hell" from the Coubertin bronze factory, the official fabricator of all new Rodin editions. Volkerding had spent years making images of eccentric manmade things, like the populist decoration on storefront black churches in inner-city Chicago; whimsical soda bottle houses on the Great Plains; and even the tools in the kitchen of a country cook in China. So when she saw a documentary film chronicling the casting of the great gates by the meticulous craftsmen of Coubertin, she was hooked. She headed off to France to do a photography project on the Coubertin metal-casting workshop. From there, it was a short hop, physically and aesthetically, to the workshops of the Compagnons du Devoir (companions of duty), the modern-day descendants of a medieval guild charged with restoring the splendid monuments and architecture of older Europe.

Crafting Light: The Photography of Laura Volkerding, a smallish show at the UA Center for Creative Photography, gives a tantalizing glimpse of this final project in the photographer's life. The craftsmen themselves are rarely seen in these reverent pictures, but their tools speak eloquently for them. In the bronze studios of Coubertin, and in the metal, wood and stone workshops of the Compagnons, Volkerding made beautiful black-and-white still lifes, elegant assemblages of carving tools, of cluttered work tables, of shelves, of molds. "Workshop of a Woodcarver, Paris," 1989, is a splendid photograph of dozens of carving tools, curved in an arc around a wooden fleur-de-lis still under construction.

The pictures are a respectful homage to craft of a kind that's relatively rare in an era of cheap manufactured goods and computer "art." But in Volkerding's hands, the tools of the trades become elegant abstractions as well. Her fine gelatin silver prints are full of the strong lines of the shops, their long work tables and open windows transposed into complex designs of diagonals and horizontals. Their rough woods and gleaming metals provide ever-changing textures, while the natural light filtering in from open doors and windows bathes everything by turns in darkness and in light. The workshop pictured in "Coubertin, St. Rémy-les-Chevreuse," with its partitions and windows hanging into the room, becomes a breathtaking geometric composition, its shadowy planes alternating with lights--a Mondrian taken from real life.

Volkerding, a native Kentuckian who died of a brain tumor in 1996 at the age of 57, donated her archive to the Center; director Terence Pitts curated this show from the Center's holdings. The earliest works on view are a couple of 1970s colored intaglio prints--the artist was a printmaker until 1972--and offers a few examples of all her major series, including panoramic landscapes, the Yes Lord! Gospel Church series and a group of China photographs.

The photographer's final crafts works from France are such a perfect marriage of her gifts with her subject that it's tempting to see the earlier art as mere prelude. That would be a mistake, of course, though with the benefit of hindsight we can see what looks like the inevitable progression of her work toward the great final art. Her preoccupations with space and line, and her interest in the works of the human hand, were in place early on.

In "Stonescape," for instance, one of the 1971 intaglio prints, a pattern of horizontal and diagonal lines crosshatch planes of color, suggesting a landscape; but like the craft pictures this one can also be read as an abstract composition. When Volkerding switched to photography, following a fire that destroyed much of her early work, she retained her interest in the abstracted landscape. Her outdoor panoramas are never romantic: They're full of asphalt highways and rotting docks and cranes. In fact, what distinguishes them as Volkerding is some human interference with nature.

"Chicago," 1974, is a riveting diptych of that city's big lake, here bordered by two concrete walkways. A distant city skyline in the background. This lake hasn't been pure nature for a long time, but Volkerding isn't offering criticism. She's just delighting in the overlay of artificial lines over nature's curves.

In China, in the late '70s, Volkerding took some revealing pictures of people: a gorgeous baby asleep in a basket, some elderly women waiting expectantly at a senior center. But the surest, loveliest Chinese pictures depict a corner in the kitchen of one "Liu Ja Ling, in Nanjing." Liu herself is not in the pictures; she doesn't have to be. Instead, her tools, like those of the French craftsmen, are her stand-ins. Her stacks of ceramic bowls, her hanging pans, her cupboard illuminated by sun from the kitchen window, make a lovely assemblage for Volkerding's camera.

Likewise, in the storefront church series, though Volkerding photographs people, it's their handiwork that gets the most attention--a cross painted on the brick facade of one church ("New Life Mission Baptist Church"), the Lord's Prayer carefully printed out on another ("Palm Sunday").

From here it's not far to the larger expanses of the great French photographs, to the harmonious wall display in "A Woodcarver's Workshop, Paris" (a saw, a chess piece king, and a carved ionic capital) and to the sumptuous piles of curved wooden planks beneath a window in "Trapani."

About half the photographs exhibited during the show's May opening have now been removed to make way for the renovation of the Center's galleries, where the old linen panels are being replaced with walls that can be painted anew for every show. But the 50 works still on view are more than worth a visit.

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