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Following the voice of Frederic Edwin Church: Lynn Davis’ Fata Morgana IV.

Seeing Nature

By Nadine Wasserman

Parallel Passages: Lynn Davis at the Sites of Frederic Edwin Church

Albany Institute of History and Art, through Sept. 2

The “places to see before you die” phenomenon has spawned a plethora of books, television shows, articles, and Web sites. But to visit even a few of the more popular sites such as the Colosseum, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Machu Piccu, and the Grand Canyon would take considerable time and resources. As if that weren’t daunting enough, many of these manmade and natural wonders are in danger of disappearing. They are being altered by climate change, neglect, indifference, and ironically by the very tourists who are thronging to see them “before they die.”

The sense that nature is being altered and that we are losing our most treasured sites is not just a contemporary concern. In the 19th century the artists of the Hudson River School wanted to capture the landscape in its “purity” before the industrial revolution spoiled it. They saw the wilderness as something innocent and sublime, a divine representation and a source of moral inspiration. They wanted to portray scenic beauty as an ideal. At a time when people of some means could begin to travel to see such wonders as Niagara Falls and the Catskills, these artists were interested in depicting them accurately while diminishing the human presence in order to emphasize a romantic view of the natural world.

In this region we are fortunate to be able to see many fine examples of work by Hudson River School artists and to also experience the same scenery that inspired them. The Albany Institute of History and Art has a new installation of selections from its permanent collection of first- and second-generation Hudson River School artists. This new installation is complemented by Parallel Passages in two neighboring galleries. Made up of 17 large-scale photographs by Lynn Davis in one gallery and relevant paintings, drawings, prints, oils, sketches, and letters by Frederic E. Church in another, this exhibition offers a sense of continuity between two different artists working more than a century apart and in different mediums. Church, whose home Olana is visible when traveling eastward on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, traveled extensively throughout the world sketching vegetation, waterfalls, volcanoes, and rivers, as well as man-made monuments, which he then used to inform his paintings. Like Church, Davis photographs the world’s most compelling architectural icons and natural wonders in order to capture their spiritual essence and their contemplative character.

Davis’ photographs are influenced by a formal abstraction. She creates her compositions using dramatic angles and lighting and masterfully uses the photographic process to enhance the emotional content of the image. Focusing in on the structure or natural formation with little evidence of humans, Davis mirrors the 19th-century landscape tradition. But rather than rely on color, she uses tonality to emphasize the drama of the image and to lend it an aura of romanticism and subdued majesty. Her sparse compositions are nonetheless richly detailed and are all the more transcendent for her choice of processing. The pieces in this show are selenium or gold-toned gelatin silver prints or Piezo prints. Her images of icebergs, waterfalls, and archeological sites are often paired with excerpts from Church’s travel journals and correspondences. These are intended to give the viewer perspective on how each artist has interpreted the same or similar locations. Some of the pairings of text and image are more successful than others. One that does work well, for example, is for Davis’ Giza III, Dynasty IV, a selenium-toned gelatin silver print that depicts the pyramids from a distance with a diminutive camel train passing by. The serene yet brooding quality of the image is juxtaposed with Church’s complaints about Alexandria which he found to be “the noisiest and dirtiest place I was ever in, everything talks, or gabbles, or squeals, or groans, or screeches, or howls perpetually.” Another effective pairing is Davis’ Upthrust, Palmyra, Syria, a dramatic image of a sweeping hill. Church writes “Syria, with its barren mountains and parched valleys possesses the magic key which unlocks our innermost heart.” The exhibition would have worked just as well if the Church quotes remained with the Church material in the other gallery. The connections are clear enough and Davis’ photographs need all the space they can get, particularly her Disko Bay icebergs.

Davis’ work de picts the power of nature and the significance of architecture. Her imagery suggests something transcendent as well as impermanent. The monumentality of the places depicted, such as Machu Picchu and Petra, Jordan, is underscored by the reality that these and so many others have at one time or are now currently on UNESCO or World Monuments fund endangered watch lists. In addition, the places of natural beauty are also threatened by climate change and by human expansion. By comparing Davis to Church the exhibition is a reminder that the sources of inspiration for both of these artists still exist and we ought to act now to preserve them while there is still time.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week-

 



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