In case you have not heard, photography is done cloning pieces of reality.
It signed a clause reading until atrocity, cruelty and ugliness do us part and they have all arrived. This breach of contract has rendered the camera free to roam and invent an alternative universe. More specifically, to birth the works on view at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens.
Aside from its self-evident mission, Expanding Horizons: Nontraditional Approaches to Photography gifts us pleasantries absent in the modern world via three artists with distinctive styles. A coming together in harmony without threats or tragedy, a somber unexalted moment, and the frankness of unfiltered eye contact are all on display through Nov. 17.
The cheerful hues in Kimiko Yoshida’s self-portraits balance out the directness with which the Japanese artist looks us in the eye. Her raw delivery is unthreatened by the layers of makeup, drapery and acrylic paint breathing life into six beautiful compositions from 2018. Through them, Yoshida courts the themes of feminine identity and art’s transformative power. She becomes a soft spring goddess with yellow flowers for hair – and glitter included – only to embody a stoic Spanish female aristocrat later.
We might not recognize the fashionable sitter Francisco Goya immortalized around 1805, but Yoshida’s Isabel de Porcel matches the Spanish master’s portrait in vivacity and flair. In lieu of black lace, she appears wrapped in a ravishing red-and-gold cloth, which stands in high contrast to her porcelain skin. As if the dramatic effect brought on by color wasn’t enough, the invisible line running down the frame and demarking identical halves adds a psychological twist. This mirrored quality alludes to the Rorschach inkblot test.
It is also here that we find the most striking work in the show. Set against a black background and featuring gold powder and Japanese lacquer, Zen Garden/Harlequin conveys sadness and joy simultaneously. The intense colors on the diamond-patterned outfit vibrate with confidence and energy, but the subject’s stare skips that sentiment. It’s guarded; it keeps to itself. Equally relentless as her other characters, Yoshida’s Harlequin is less eager to entertain and happy to remain a quiet enigma. She has no funny moves left.
The first gallery room is a tough act to follow. The task falls on Stephen Wilkes’ photographs, which despite looking crispy and alive seem nothing special at first glance. Scattered across green lawns are cyclists, runners, children flying kites, and couples having a picnic. Isolated, each of these frozen moments is perfectly plausible, but finding them in the same place at the same time highly improbable. The method through which Wilkes arrives at idyllic scenes such as Cherry Blossoms, National Mall & Memorial is what sets him apart from everyone else who has taken a nice panoramic photograph.
Like a sniper, Wilkes spends hours watching and documenting iconic locations (sometimes from scaffolds and rooftops) with his camera. He takes thousands of snapshots and later selects the frames that go on to compose a large cohesive scene. The insane perseverance of this American photographer goes undetected except for a curious characteristic hinting at the progression of the day. Four of the five photographs on view appear brightest toward their right edges and gradually turn dark as our eyes travel west.
Night and day are condensed into another picturesque print titled Brooklyn Bridge, which manages to map the day’s motions with incredible detail. It captures a pair of newlyweds, children running, pets being walked, a ferry and even the carousel playing in the distance. No spot is left neglected. While we are busy discovering the events transpiring in every corner, the sky undergoes the biggest transformation. Bright white clouds turn dark and the lights of skyscrapers come on. The 2016 piece is a glorious triumph over instant gratification, an optimistic interpretation of days that feel mostly gray now. Were we ever this happy? Could we be so again? Wilkes’s works answer yes and yes.
The smallest less shiny offerings in Expanding Horizons are credited to French photographer Bernard Faucon, who presents six photographs executed as far back as 1978. Due to their size and muted appearance, they get somewhat lost in the décor of the room opening up to the gardens. It isn’t until someone points out this is a three-artist exhibition that we do the math and realize this must be the third. There are no echoes of the thrill delivered by the previous rooms for Faucon, also a philosophical writer, deals in depth.
In Les linges, the sun shines through a window and illuminates neatly stacked piles of clothes like domestic monuments. No effort is made to conceal the ceiling cracks or the stains on the pale blue walls. This is ordinary life. Take it all or leave it, Faucon seems to say.
A few of his works are populated by fully dressed mannequins sailing or waving from a departing train. Their strong point is the intricate staging of the backdrops housing the dolls. Faucon is known precisely for turning the ordinary into a performance. In Le départ, Les Grandes Vacances, he positions the figures in the act of walking, smoking and climbing aboard a rusty train. The children hold red handkerchiefs and butterfly catchers clearly signaling the start of the summer holidays.
By the time we leave the premises, the collective influence of all the works has settled and delivers an unexpected blow, for now we are back in the real world and it doesn’t look like anything in Expanding Horizons. The show is not intent on ruffling any plumage. It comes across fun, imaginative, private and well-mannered, all of which makes the return to reality much harder.
Expanding Horizons: Nontraditional Approaches to Photography is on view through Nov. 17 at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. Admission: $15; $10 for 65 and over, members free. Hours: 10 am to 4 pm Wednesday through Sunday. Call 561-832-5328 or visit www.ansg.org.