Debra Rubino and Jenee Mateer search for the unnameable in the barely there
Published: March 2, 2011
Jenee Mateer: Break Boundary
Debra Rubino: Accidental Exuberance
Through March 12 at Jordan Faye Contemporary
Jenee Mateer likes to make the tools of representation distort and obscure the natural world. At least, that’s what this Towson University assistant professor of photography and digital media appears to favor as judged by the series of works currently installed at the Jordan Faye Contemporary. In a smaller project space gallery, Mateer installs her The Animals series, an assortment of petite archival inkjet-on-paper animal portraits mounted on wooden blocks with acrylic polymer. Random bits of text float among these images—of a bee, camel, horse, chimpanzee, lion, lizard, cheetah, frog, etc., alongside images of, well, an alien and a unicorn. On an opposite wall, images from The Pleasure of the Text series feature digital photos on fine art paper of book pages, though that isn’t instantly apparent. They’re modest closeups and curiously composed. In one, it looks like Mateer opened a book and laid it on a table, raised some of it pages, and pointed the camera’s lens almost perpendicular to the thin, whispy vertical sheets of paper. The camera’s focus makes the texture of the paper sharp and supple but blurs the text, and the result is more abstract line and light design. It takes a few moments of inspection to figure out what’s going on.
Both of these earlier projects calibrate the eye for Break Boundary: an interest in the natural world and the distortion ability of the camera. In these images, most of which are archival inkjet on paper, Mateer creates a coastal landscape. Bright, cyan skies occupy most of the upper half to two-thirds of the vertical rectangle image; the bottom half to one-third the more cobalt and midnight blue of deep water. They’re polished, they’re slick, and they at first feel somewhat superficially decorative and benignly meditative—until the eye catches a skinny vertical bar separating the image into something like stacked horizontal rectangles.
The Break Boundary series—14 images and two videos in total—is an effort to blend photo collage as landscape with the transcendental weight of abstract expressionism. It’s not entirely successful—the seascape color palette alone is almost too effervescent, suggesting the ethereal delight of a morning in Miami—but that could very well be the meteorological residue of a pair of eyeballs beaten down by a Baltimore February. Even in this only partial success, though, Mateer flirts with some interesting ideas.
The first is a casual reminder of just how readily the natural can evoke the primal consciousness conjured by various abstract expressionist vocabularies. Mateer cites Mark Rothko in her statement, and that influence is immediately grasped in Break Boundary. What’s more intriguing is the subtle power the natural world can have when rearranged into Rothko-ish compositions and dimensions that aspire to that grandeur. The largest work here is “Break Boundary 10,” a 30-by-30 inch square that’s the most effective image in the series. The sky takes up roughly half of the frame, but silken clouds dilute the pale blue to this ghost of a hue. At the horizon line just below the frame’s vertical midline begins the water, a far off wave captured at a gentle roll, nothing cresting yet: merely this dimpled, reflective surface, sunlight hitting and dancing off in a disco-ball dazzle. This section is a thin band, though, as a narrow turquoise band separates it from the more greenish-blue water below. It’s just as textured, only its colder, deeper color temperature lends it the textural motion of a cake hastily iced with frosting, short thick strokes pushing pigments in multiple directions. Put together they look like two different bodies of water trying to coexist as a singular ocean. The image gains its tension from this combination of natural landscape as artificial construct and digital collage as slick construction.
They’re also a bit too slick: Others don’t achieve the same level of tension, and on smaller scales they tend to feel more like compositional experiments than stabs at monumental statements. Except, that is, for one of the two video pieces. Not “Break Boundary Video 2”—this single-channel installation follows the basic approach of the image series. Three levels of image stacked on top of each other, three distinct bands of the natural world that the eye tries to make into something that it recognizes in nature. The color has been extracted to leave a grayscale video, and while it’s a pleasant bit of trompe l’oeil, it is little else.
“Break Boundary Video 1,” however, is a disarming dip into a petite existential void. Here, Mateer stacks two videos on top of each other: Each one features a wave breaking in slow motion and then, also in slow motion, what appears to be the same footage unwinds backward before starting over. For one thing, it’s a simply ineffable image: waves breaking on top of each other on a single horizon. But because of its size—both videos are installed on tiny screens, the size of a hand-held television—it’s a bit like staring into a black hole on an iPhone. Watching “Break Boundary Video 1” becomes a hypnotically isolating experience, because the slow backward and forward motion of something that continues perfectly well on its own dramatically makes risible any kind of human effort to capture/represent their patient motion. Here Mateer shrinks something big down to portable-device size, slows it down, and loops a short segment of footage—and all that does is remind you that forward, backward, doesn’t matter: The tides mark time with their stately, patient, and maddening indifference to any human perception of them.
Debra Rubino mines an even bolder consideration of the unknown in her nine direct process monoprints, all “Untitled” from the Accidental Exuberance Series. These beyond subtle prints—basically all black with capillary thin filaments of white lines and curves—create images that redefine fugitive. Digitally and online the white designs look like strips of smoke floating in a dark bark, or thin lines of ink dropped into a dark liquid before they dissipate. Both readings are light years off. I can’t image these pieces reproducing at all on newsprint: They’d be a rectangular smudge, more printing error than purposeful design.
That would be a heinous insult to them, because Rubino displays an uncanny precision with these intricately tight designs. All prints feature a horizontal black bar in the center of the page, though two are mounted vertically. In the horizontal format, the effect is like watching a wide-screen letterbox movie on an old TV, before flat-screen monitors got hip to theater projection’s 1:85:1 aspect ratio.
So don’t worry if a first encounter with one of Rubino’s “Untitled” rekindles thoughts of first sitting down to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rubino isn’t afraid of the deep, dark unknown, and these prints are more than 90 percent negative space. The barely perceptible designs look like pieces of thread, or lines drawn with the tip of a needle. And they form an irregular, lattice-like structure that appears to be falling apart. Imagine a tiny piece of distressed white fabric magnified to show each and every individual thread and the frayed weave. Now hold ends of it in each hand, pull apart until you start to feel its tensile strength completely give up, and then instantly turn out the lights, toss it into the air, and take a series of macro-lens photos of it as it tumbles and falls through the air. That’s somewhat of the sort of flash and filigree imagery Rubino pulls off here.
Only there are somehow way more precise details in these barely there prints, and this combination of the highly articulated and the anxiously fleeting produces an odd visual vertigo. You have to get extremely close to the works to make out all of the details in these intricate designs, a closeness typically reserved for flirtatious kissing or interrogation intimidation, and even when you do, you remember these designs occupy only a minuscule portion of the print’s real estate. All nine of the works effortlessly instill this curious push and pull—an invitation to approach coupled with the soft reminder that the closer you get the more you’re drawn into its dense expanse of black nothingness. It’s a perverse seduction, part feather on lower back and gloved hand on throat, that leaves you feeling tethered between a pair of wonderful and frightening oblivions.
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