Nash exhibits photography

by John Pribek

The art of photography, says McKnight Fellowship recipient Andrew Baugnet, is all in the subtleties. Moving the camera half an inch in either direction can entirely change the resulting image. And when developing a black-and-white image, a photographer can lighten or darken certain areas to shift the emphasis.
But ultimately, a photographer has only limited control over an image. “It’s still a lot about the seeing,” Baugnet said. “I’d like to think that if the viewer’s interested and takes the time, there’s a whole lot going on.”
To be sure, there’s a lot going on with the photographs currently on display at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. Through Nov. 22, the gallery features the work of the four 1995 University of Minnesota/McKnight Photography Fellowship recipients: Baugnet, Mae Benson, Vance Gellert and Paul Shambroom. Two finalists, Stephanie Torbert and Jennifer Jenkins, also have work on exhibit.
The McKnight program, which is administered by the University’s department of art, provides funds for emerging and established Minnesota photographers. McKnight officials say they want to encourage a broad range of artistic sensibilities and approaches, and the Nash exhibit reflects that goal. The work ranges from Baugnet’s traditional black-and-white landscapes to Benson’s enigmatic splashes of color, with various stylistic stops along the way.
Neal Cuthbert, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation, said the show’s common denominator is quality. “There’s a huge photography community in this town — quite active and quite good,” Cuthbert said. “Supporting these individuals just reflects our core belief, that working artists are the creative source for everything else that happens in the arts.”
Shambroom said programs such as the McKnight’s allow artists to take chances and work with new media. “It gives you the chance to fail if you need to.”
Shambroom’s work at the Nash is the continuation of an ambitious project: to demystify arenas of hidden power. Last summer Shambroom shot meetings involving various community leaders, including Gov. Carlson and his senior staff, the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Board.
One inescapable conclusion from the resulting wide-angle, color prints is that local civic leaders could benefit from a hefty supply of No-Doz. A frame shows Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton making an animated point while City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes appears to be nodding off. In another shot, Gov. Carlson seems to be speaking with his eyes closed.
“Once I get into the meetings,” Shambroom said, “I’m really trying to respond very intuitively, and not to editorialize. I can’t claim that I don’t, because I don’t think there’s any such thing as a completely objective observer. But making photographs is purely responding visually to what’s getting me excited.”
The familiar faces in Shambroom’s work contrast with Mae Benson’s mysterious, dream-like images. Her photographs feature stunning colors, along with an assortment of objects suspended on different planes within the colors. In “Lava,” a small, heart-shaped locket hangs in front of a brilliant red background. A stamped date (an expiration date?) floats within the red. The shading in “Latent Site” seems to form a face out of an obscure, dimpled substance — it could be just a puddle of driving rain, or perhaps the moon’s surface. A parchment near the bottom of the photograph resembles a veil.
Nash officials characterize Benson’s images as psychological landscapes — as fitting a description as any. The terrain, then, is formidable and fascinating.
“The point about these is that they’re not about being totally descriptive first,” Henkel said while viewing Benson’s work. “The artist may want us to spend more time trying to find meaning in them, rather than delivering it.”
Gellert’s photographs appear more straightforward, if no less emotional. He continues his “CarlVision” series — a 13-year-old project that traces the growth of his son Carl. This is no sentimental journey, however. The portraits — most of which include the elder Gellert — capture the tension and confusion that often drive a father/son relationship.
In one Ilfochrome, a color image made from a transparency, Carl, wearing a dark blue suit and power tie, stands over the shrouded body of his father. Carl stares toward the camera, his face giving away little. Is he a funeral director? A medical examiner? A stunned loved one? It’s the viewer’s call.
Another Ilfochrome shows Carl — or Carl’s legs, anyway — leaping from a step ladder, his father either warning or encouraging him. In a nearby color print, the father is about to hand off a boulder to Carl, a burden that will surely crush him. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, these images are either deeply insightful or hopelessly clichÇd, but either way, Gellert’s colors intrigue.
Gellert takes the notion of interactive photography to a new level with “Installation.” An actual brick wall frames a 12-paned window that in turn frames 12 photographs. In each of the dozen images, a pair of youthful arms holds a toy gun, aiming at an out-of-focus target on a street below. Meanwhile, instructions tell the viewer to pull a chain hanging from the window. This opens the window and reveals an oversized image that is, to put it mildly, unsettling.
“The ideas come from left field and force their way into my head,” Gellert said. “Then I have to deal with them in a rational way somehow. I never know how they’re going to work. Sometimes it takes months to figure them out.”
Gellert doesn’t dwell on the disquieting nature of his work. “They’re just photographs,” he said. “We’re acting. We’re putting on a show.
“The father/son relationship is very complex,” he added. “It’s very determining of what kind of people we grow up to be. All of that stuff is happening, and they’re very important issues. But how serious is it? Well, I leave enough levels of interpretation here so that people can take away what they want. They are just photographs. We have a good time. We laugh before and afterward.”
Baugnet’s landscape photographs leave out human forms, although the trails of human beings remain in focus. He uses both black-and-white and color prints to explore the intersections of public and private places: a string of bright orange barrels bisect an eerily calm lake; a windmill’s prominent shadow darkens a Minnesota farm road on a bright summer day; thick branches frame a lonely park bench.
“I mostly prefer pictures that just show evidence of where people have been,” Baugnet said. “These show a lot of personal spaces, places that people have consciously organized or arranged. If people were in these shots, they would become too much of a distraction. You would start to look at faces, hands, gestures. That’s not what I’m trying to do, so I keep em out.”
The McKnight Fellowship recipients already have collected their share of honors. Baugnet contributed photographs to the permanent collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Hennepin County History Center. Benson’s work appeared in the 1995 women’s art show sponsored by the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota. The Walker Art Center featured Shambroom’s photographs in a solo show last year, and he’s preparing for a show next spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
For his part, Gellert serves as the founding director of pARTS, a Minneapolis photo gallery. One of Gellert’s images may also be the most widespread — a picture of Carl, his face smeared with blackberry juice, adorns the album cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “A Boy Named Goo.”