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You scream, I scream: Allen’s Kalers Pond (snoopy).

Photo Play
By David Brickman

Meredith Allen: Photographs

The Teaching Gallery, Hudson Valley Community College, through Nov. 5

If you’re the sort of person who enjoys a good cartoon or comic book character, and then wants to see its head melting on a stick, don’t miss Meredith Allen: Photographs at Hudson Valley Community College’s Teaching Gallery.

Allen is a New York-based photo artist who earned her master’s degree at SUNY Buffalo—from where we got the likes of Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman back in the go-go ’80s—and whose work has garnered prestigious grants, solo shows and plenty of publication exposure in recent years. Part of the key to her success is the likeability of the candy-colored pictures; another is the uninflected attitude that easily allows for viewer projection and interpretation, an uncontrollable aftermath which the artist said during a talk she gave at the college last week that she accepts as inevitable.

Aside from their content—melting ice pops held up at arm’s length in front of vaguely idyllic landscapes—the pictures are seductively lush prints with subtle, painterly surfaces and sophisticated color interplays. Based on reproductions, I expected digitally captured and output fare—turns out these are film-based 35mm snaps (she uses a point-and-shoot) that Allen prints large herself in the painstaking darkroom method.

The resulting 20-by-24-inch prints are presented mounted and laminated with a matte surface, framed to the edges in white and hung in a straight row. This has by now become the standard method for showing photographs (as opposed to matting them) and, in this case, the sense it creates of the picture as an object is consistent with the style of the pictures themselves, which present their subject as an object for our observation and scrutiny.

The straight-on approach says to the viewer, “Hey, check this out,” and when we do, a number of ideas may come up. The first thing likely would be to notice the vivid color—the pops themselves go pink, yellow, red white and blue, brown with blue, orange with green, then red, then green and so on. These are juxtaposed against mostly clear, deep-blue skies above a low horizon with a watery or grassy background, slightly out of focus.

I’m not much on recognizing the characters (no kids), but some of them are pretty obvious, some are melted beyond recognition and I’d guess more than a few were pretty badly reproduced in ice cream to begin with—but you do see Pink Panther, Pikachu and Jimmy Neutron pretty clearly (anyway, they’re all labeled). On the other hand, Spider-Man is a mere blob and some of the others have lost most of their facial features and expressions to sun and gravity, creating a vision not necessarily directly associated with the personal connection to, say, Powerpuff Girls.

This is where it begins to get interesting—especially in the case of a demonic-looking Mickey Mouse with an angry slash of a maw, or Pikachu’s terrified expression and little stubby arms raised in apparent self-defense or supplication. I’m not the type to go all empathetic over a frozen dessert in the form of a two-dimensional cartoon, but there is a good bit of evocative transformation going on here.

Another aspect of this body of work (there are 10 ice pops on view, selected from a much larger series, along with three other photos from Allen’s earlier series on coin-operated kiddie rides) is the different take on the landscape, which places it firmly in a time-honored chain that trails back to the very beginning of the photographic medium. Allen’s use of color, juxtaposition, focus and scene makes connections and references to various points along this timeline, most notably to the “altered landscapes” made by John Pfahl in the 1970s. Given that he’s based in Buffalo, a direct influence seems possible.

Allen’s apparent obsession with the American vernacular is equally expressed in her kiddie-ride pictures. The three 12-inch-square inkjet prints included here feature nicely individualistic portrayals of these figures in the soft-focus dreaminess created by a plastic Diana camera. They consist of a mellow alligator, a crazed kangaroo and a threatening horse—perhaps not exactly fitting or clear metaphors for our time, but nevertheless an odd thing to willingly stick your toddler on for a 25-cent ride.

Allen said at her talk that “photography is about play and it is about discovery . . . and finding your way in the world as you make it your own.” This exhibition shows that by staying true to that philosophy she has been able to create a unique mode of expression.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Patricia Nolan: Cinematika

Stevan Jennis: Narrative Landscapes

Richard Sena Gallery, through Oct. 6

This pairing of Patricia Nolan and Stevan Jennis is the first show I’ve seen at Hudson’s Richard Sena Gallery, a lovely, clean space on a lower block of Warren Street. The exhibition takes natural advantage of the gallery’s twin storefront layout, being in effect tandem solo shows.

Nolan presents 15 photographic triptychs; elaborately framed, they physically evoke the traditional altarpiece, but their content is far more personal and whimsical. All but five of them consist of richly hand-colored silver prints, the others being unadorned silver prints with one trio combining the two media.

Nolan’s subject matter creates bridges among portraiture, fashion, and industrial and historical architecture. Most of the images seem to create random or mystical connections—more like poetry than storytelling—and several are clearly intended as straightforward portraits of certain people, while others treat the sitter more as a model or creative collaborator than as a subject.

Aside from the distinctive presentation, what makes Nolan’s work stand out is the color—she is really as much a painter as a photographer, and she revels in very strong, almost psychedelic shades. I found the gold-toned framing out of place on all but the most chromatically compatible pieces and especially distracting on the black-and-white pictures. Overall, this is a challenging, interesting body of work.

Jennis is one of those artists with his own visual vocabulary, and he uses it exuberantly in these 12 acrylic drawings on paper and paintings on canvas. His cartoony style and self-referential tendencies make for very approachable work—but it also has a dark side, as though Saul Steinberg came back, altered, from the dead.

There is appeal in both the rawness of the sketchier pieces and the resolution of the more polished ones—sometimes, Jennis makes the same image in both forms—but I liked best a piece that falls between the two. Titled Artist’s Landscape II, it is a witty flashback to the days of color wheels, cubes and cones, paint tubes and sketchpads. The bespectacled, paint-splotched, skivvies-wearing artist in the midst of it all seems truly bewildered, perhaps by a postmodernist world he can no longer recognize.

It’s truly fun stuff.

—David Brickman


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