Nature's Sway | Art Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Nature's Sway 

BARBARA CRANE: STICKS AND STONES

at Gallery 954, through October 15

In the 19th century negatives were often combined to create photographic panoramas giving the illusion of a seamless 360-degree view of a landscape or city. For a group of works titled From Coloma to Covert, in her current show "Sticks and Stones," Barbara Crane prints several negatives side by side on long paper scrolls, linking pictures of trees in the woods to create another kind of panorama. Crane's images don't match smoothly; her statements on the nature of photography and on nature itself emerge from small discontinuities of shape, size, and focus.

In a piece labeled number five on the gallery's checklist, three images are printed vertically, each stacked atop the next, with heavy black bars between them. Each image shows two tree trunks photographed at night under artificial light. The photos share a black background, but the position of the trunks shifts slightly from one image to the next; the viewer's gaze is interrupted when following a trunk upward.

Number three displays a long branch stretching horizontally across four images. There's some repetition--a kind of overlap effect; the area just to the left of each frame line is printed again just to its right. Aside from jarring the eye, this repetition reminds the viewer of the artificiality of photography and the arbitrariness of framing: instead of the continuity of nature, we experience the repetition made possible by photo reproduction.

Number seven contains perhaps the most elaborate form of discontinuity. A large branch extends across five horizontally arranged images; smaller branches enter several of these pictures. As the eye travels from the third to the fourth image, the large branch suddenly becomes fuzzy, while a smaller branch lower in the frame comes into sharp focus. One possible explanation is quite simple technically--Crane could have simply changed the focus setting--but the effect on the viewer is more complex, since the eye tends to follow one branch at a time from one image to the next. Expectations are confounded when the image of the large branch moves from sharp to fuzzy while the image of a lower branch does the opposite. The change in focus is almost like a shift in representational systems--it's a different way of seeing.

Of the 14 numbered photos in the main gallery, 10 are called From Coloma to Covert, and each plays with some form of discontinuity. The effects of these multiple breaks are deepened by the richness of the surfaces. Each separate image is a contact print made from an eight-by-ten view-camera negative; this helps account for their almost tactile richness. Each trunk and twig has detail and depth that seduces the eye, making the shifts between images even more disruptive.

The breaks testify in classic modernist fashion to the medium's inherent artificiality, but there's more going on here as well. While the trunks and branches are often elegant and almost musical to look at in their arching shapes and bark textures, Crane's discontinuities have an almost random quality. There seem to be no reasons for the specifics of each break. Behind this apparent lack of control lies an important kind of modesty. Crane seems to want to make her trees as elegant as any great sculpture, while relegating her own interventions almost to chance. In a statement for the catalog of her 1981 retrospective, Barbara Crane Photographs 1948-1980, she wrote, "Many of my photographic ideas have grown from chance or accident, both visually and technically, or from a gift of the subject matter itself."

The disconnected images call attention to photographic devices like framing and focus, but these tools appear to be employed in a less aesthetically controlled manner than her exquisite treatment of bark on the trees. After looking at each scroll several times, one comes away with a sense of each twig as a mysterious, powerful presence--an independent living being, one that can't be contained by arbitrary rectilinear borders. The branch may change in focus from image to image or repeat itself briefly or have a small piece missing, but its essence transcends the arbitrary limitations of human-made mechanical imaging systems.

Crane, a 66-year-old Chicago native, was first exposed to photography by her father, who printed pictures of family and friends in his amateur darkroom; she recalls watching in fascination as the images emerged from blank paper in the developing tray. As an undergraduate at Mills College she was encouraged by the great photographer Imogen Cunningham--"She gave us such hope; she gave me the sense that one could survive"--and Crane began taking her own photos to document artwork by others while she was still an art history major. Sixteen years later, in 1964, Aaron Siskind viewed her personal photographs and encouraged her to enroll in IIT's Institute of Design, after which her work increased in complexity and gained wider recognition.

The title From Coloma to Covert is taken from the names of two Michigan towns neighboring her country home, which is where these pictures were shot. When speaking of the present photos, Crane talks of "the monumentality of those sticks," which "look like artifacts . . . like they were part of some archaeological dig." But it is her own framing and juxtapositions that give them their odd power.

In number six, four horizontally arrayed images present a deep-space vista of a forest. For once the forest floor is visible; trees in the foreground have richly detailed textures to their bark--deeply grooved, gnarled, almost touchable--while trees in the background become less and less distinct, as if shrouded in mist. The scene is seductive, inviting; I can almost feel the forest floor under my feet or the dampness on my skin. The right side of one photo and the left side of an adjacent shot are filled by different sides of a large tree trunk, but each photo also duplicates the trunk's midsection. This repetition makes the trunk seem more powerful; it will not be delimited by Crane's frame lines; it somehow insists on an autonomy, a magical power to appear when and where it will.

Number eight consists of two photographs of the same tree trunk. We see only a fragment of the surrounding forest at the outer edge of each photo. Here the trunk almost seems to be taking over the work under its own power.

That is precisely what happens in other photos from this show. Rather than juxtaposing pictures of contiguous spaces, Crane groups elegantly enlarged images of stones or trunks. In Coloma to Covert Sticks, we see vivid close-ups of bark mounted on four huge panels, each over five feet high, with every tiny crevice enlarged to the scale of a giant sculpture. These oversized images seem like icons from some secret sect of Druids; the photographs appear to become the surface of the tree itself. The "ideology" behind the photos now stands revealed: nature is revered as something far larger and more mysterious than the frames of human imagery, or the categories made by human minds, can ever hope to contain.

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