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Dreaming the Impossible 

The surrealists, ah, the surrealists ... The more unreal real life becomes, the more relevant they seem. Of course, there are all kinds of surrealists, but the most accessible were the "visionary" variety, artists such as Dali, Magritte or De Chirico who painted dreamlike scenes with realistic clarity and precision. If we transpose that approach to modern photography it is hard not to think of Jerry Uelsmann, whose photomontages have seduced the eyes and twisted the minds of photography buffs for more than four decades.

A photo never lies -- right? There was a time when people really thought that, but in the Age of PhotoShop, most of us know better. Yet, an aura of veracity still attends the non-digital photographic image, a quality postmodern philosopher Roland Barthes called its "evidential force," and which Uelsmann invokes to stunning effect. Threshold is a classic example, a kind of crumbling ruin beyond which lies a pastoral landscape. Framed by a gothic arched portal, a pair of ghostly, almost angelic, bird wings hang suspended. Just inside the gloom, illuminated by an ambient light beam, a pair of hands holds a bird's nest replete with a partially cracked open egg. It's an intriguing evocation of an alternate reality, and if advanced digital imaging programs like PhotoShop have made such juxtapositions easy to achieve on most modern computers, Uelsmann does it the old-fashioned way using cameras, multiple negatives and a darkroom. For lovers of black-and-white photography, there is nothing like the subtle delicacy of a quality silver print; digital technology can produce stunning effects but nothing quite so crystalline.

A noteworthy sub-theme appears in prints that give credit to the artists who have influenced his vision. Meditating on the Eye and "I" of Joseph Cornell is truly Cornellian, a straight-on view of a Victorian reliquary containing a crystal ball in which an image of Joseph Cornell's eye hangs suspended. Surrounded by his signature touches, planetarium mechanisms and the like, the staring, floating eye conveys Cornell's stark astonishment at the world. In Kiefer's Message, a solitary figure stands in a kind of isolated tidal pool surrounded by what is apparently a parched, furrowed and fissured landscape under a darkly apocalyptic sky. The reference of course is to Anselm Kiefer, whose densely layered paintings suggest the claustrophobic horrors of history and the essential isolation of the human condition. And it is to Uelsmann's credit that he can so frankly invoke the look of such disparate artists as Kiefer and Cornell while remaining so true to his own vision. Another virtuoso performance from the master of photomontage.

It used to be that Maggie Taylor's digital photomontages had much in common with Uelsmann's photographs, which should come as no surprise considering that they have lived together as man and wife for some time. But of late, all that has changed as Taylor's style has become more and more uniquely and distinctly her own. And a pleasantly beguiling vision it is, as we see in works like Stray Thoughts, a portrait of a Victorian maiden like Alice Liddell with Medusa tresses. She wears a deadpan expression as she clutches a butterfly net, and it's all very matter-of-fact except for the top of her head, which tilts open like a lid as a half-dozen Luna moths flutter out and away.

Even more dramatic is Southern Gothic, another Victorian girl child, this one in dark satin and white lace, but her long, flowing skirt is actually English ivy, and her hands clutch opposite sides of her head, which she is tearing in two like an old photo. When we look at photographs we see the person, but here Taylor reminds us that they are really flat surfaces, a molecular dance of illusion, or "maya," as virtual reality was once defined in Sanskrit. But it's not a scene from The Matrix. Taylor's colors are as richly Victorian as her imagery, yet the past is yet another facet of her palette, her cybernetic bag of tricks, a feat of time travel using 21st century technology to visit not simply previous ages but the dreams of the those times -- the "stray thoughts" and lost fantasies that linger in between the worlds that we know and those we don't.

click to enlarge Evidential force: Jerry Uelsmann's Threshold is - surrealism at its most postmodern, eschewing - PhotoShop trickery in favor of the good old- - fashioned darkroom technique of photographic - manipulation.
  • Evidential force: Jerry Uelsmann's Threshold is surrealism at its most postmodern, eschewing PhotoShop trickery in favor of the good old- fashioned darkroom technique of photographic manipulation.
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