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Past as Present 

Ah, spring, the birds and bees, warm days and cool evenings. Enjoy it while it lasts; the torrid season will soon be upon us. When people think of spring they also think of romance, which is an interesting word. Beyond its longtime association with love, it is also the root of the cultural term, "romanticism," which refers to art works based on emotional, supernatural or otherwise mysterious forces. In the art world, romanticism has been out of style for at least a century.

Except, that is, in photography. Over the past decade or so, art photographers have embraced poetically diffuse, sepia-toned images that often recall 19th century photo-impressionism. This exhibit of work by four photographers new to the Bassetti stable offers further evidence of such undercurrents. Perhaps the most perplexing is Ken Rosenthal, who takes the current soft-focus vogue to an extreme. In traditional soft-focus photography, some details appear sharp while all else is a blur. In Rosenthal's work, Everything is as diffused even though he employs precision optics to achieve his obfuscating ends. For instance, Not Dark Yet: Daisies is a view of daisies as seen from ground level. Well, they look like they might be daisies, but are so blurry you can't rule out other possibilities. Like maybe a squadron of helicopters.

Beyond the flagrant use of soft focus, Rosenthal sometimes does his own revisions of actual old photographs. Seen & Not Seen: Woman & Sailboats is a fuzzy, retro image of a woman (or something like a woman) looking out over a body of water with white, sail-like forms bobbing on the surface. This was obviously taken from an old photo, but is now so blurry it looks like it was printed in a Turkish bath, like the way things look when you go from cold air conditioning in August into the steam-heated streets and your shades fog up. All that fog may be a fad, but Rosenthal does it reasonably well, and there is something rather appealing in all this, though it is hard to say exactly what or why.

At this point, Hiroshi Watanabe's more conventional black-and-white shots may come as a relief. His world is very ordered, but in a fairly poetic way. Some of his shots are "observations," ordinary street scenes that become classical compositions when the shutter is decisively clicked just as all of the elements come perfectly into balance. Others are "faces" that are actually portraits of subjects in traditional Japanese costumes, some with heavy makeup reminiscent of Kabuki theater. Counterintuitively enough, the makeup and costumes seem to highlight the individuality of the faces, making them more like traditional portraits than expected.

Ambiguity returns in the work of Joyce Linde, whose double-images are actually straight-on shots of car or shop windows that reflect their surroundings. Landscape, Cade, LA is just that, a classic Louisiana field fading into a forest with roiling, densely tumescent clouds hovering threateningly above. Actually, the scene tilts at an alarming angle, and only when you notice the rear-view mirror and other automotive details does it "read" like what it is: a panoramic reflection in the window of a van or SUV. In others, reflections in French Quarter shop windows hint at Atget's Paris, haunted by ghostly, disembodied tourists. Jennifer Shaw's soft-focus images evoke the primitive optics of 19th century cameras, but her carefully framed views of the decaying urban or industrial landscape possess a surreal whimsy. Anchor Buoy, a giant steel ball among many, suggests the castaway toy of a baby Vulcan. Bollard # 28, one of those steel fixtures on which the mooring ropes of ocean-going vessels are tied, looks iconic against the undulating river, with its shining surface and stenciled number 28 glowing like a numerological omen in a dream. Box Spring is a maze of denuded, sinewy wire against a corrugated tin wall on which climbing vines mimic the curlicues of the springs. And Power Plant, a view of an old brick wall with broken windows and some oversized steel ducts protruding from it, offers a look at the old industrial order in extremis, as the robber barons' empires decay into the ashes of history. Shaw's work deals with time, space and light, and the subliminal worlds created by their collusion.

click to enlarge Time, space and light: Jennifer Shaw's soft-focus images, as shown in works such as Anchor Buoy, evoke the primitive optics of 19th century cameras.
  • Time, space and light: Jennifer Shaw's soft-focus images, as shown in works such as Anchor Buoy, evoke the primitive optics of 19th century cameras.
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Speaking of Through June, Jennifer Shaw, Ken Rosenthal, Hiroshi Watanabe And Joyce Linde: New Work

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