Smoke and the Water
Two solo shows exhibit mastery of medium
Published: June 19, 2013
By Alexey Titarenko
Dennis Lee Mitchell
At the C. Grimaldis Gallery through July 6.
Time is as malleable as clay for Alexey Titarenko’s camera. By the time the Russian-born, now New York-based documentary photographer’s arresting black-and-white images started hitting American galleries and museums in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he had experimented with, honed, and refined his in-camera and darkroom techniques such as long exposures, controlled camera motion, toning the print to change the monochromatic character of the blacks and whites, and using a bleach solution to lighten areas. His skilled uses of these processes and approaches created a body of work as indelible as it is beguiling.
Venice offers 23 photos of that gorgeous Italian island-cluster city slowly sinking into the Adriatic Sea. The subjects of the photographs are familiar: scenes featuring gondolas and the vaporetto waterbus, shots of the grand canal, numerous views of the San Marco Cathedral and the Palazzo Ducale on the Piazza San Marco. What captivates the eye and mind are Titarenko’s treatments of his prints, which yield images of the present as seen through photographic qualities that recall the past.
Most of the works are square format, from 7-by-7 inches up to 18-by-18 inches—and one stunning large format 50-by-50 inch print—that 1:1 aspect ratio associated with 20th-century black-and-white street photography from the 1920s on. (Along with digital filtering that changes the quality of the image, the square format is one of the main visual reasons photo apps such as Hipstamatic produce a “vintage” feeling.) And the quality of Titarenko’s tonal range is intoxicating; his blacks are not quite black, his whites not quite white. His images have the look of early photographic methods such as Photogravures or albumen prints, and he’s able to exploit subtle changes and sharp contrasts in the gradual move from his not-quite-blacks and not-quite-whites. It’s almost as if he’s conducting light in the darkroom to achieve a kind of musical emotion in his photos.
Take “Vaporetto in Fog,” for instance. Composition-wise, it’s a rather ordinary shot of one waterbus heading down a canal as a handful of gondoliers punt their way up, down, and across the waterway. And, yes, the entire scene is lightly dusted in a layer of fog. But Titarenko’s process lends the image a romantic intensity reminiscent of Turner, the black-and-white quality of an archival photo. A few gondoliers and the vaporetto are explosions of out-of-focus blurriness in this landscape of crisp sharpness.
Titarenko toys with this romanticism in this series. Some images—like the surreptitiously potent “Bell Tower,” a shot of a canal as night seems to fall and a bell tower in the background, the interior of its cupola brightly lit up like a sparkler held aloft in the night sky—reinforce Venice’s picturesque currency, capturing images of it today that feel as if the city’s visual beauty hasn’t changed for centuries. In images such as “San Marco Flooded,” Titarenko turns his impeccable eye on the sea’s slow rise, showing an area of the piazza under a sheet of water that coats its stones like glass.
All of these images reveal layer after layer of subtle details that move the eye around their compositions, lending each a musical sense of orchestral narrative which is sometimes filled with cheeky ennui. “San Marco, Couple Kissing” is a 16-by-16 square shot of the cathedral as seen from across the piazza. An ornery sea of gray sky swims above it. Pedestrians and pigeons are out-of-focus smears running across the composition’s foreground like an impudent hunk of pigment Francis Bacon curses across a painting with a palette knife. And after roving around the image for a few minutes, the eyes finally arrive upon a white couple in shorts standing side by side with their arms around each other, heads turned, lips touching, the titular stars of this private movie-still, dwarfed by restless motion in this historic place that may one day be underwater.
Dennis Lee Mitchell displays a different kind of mastery over his medium in his 12 mostly untitled smoke-on-paper pieces in Smoke Drawings, the companion solo show at Grimaldis. These lovely, abstract works are created by using a torch to apply smoke soot directly to paper, and the use of heat as a creative catalyst, as well as the organic tenor of the imagery itself, seems to have grown out of Mitchell’s work using ceramics to create sculpture reminiscent of trees, branches, and twigs.
Smoke and burning as a medium can produce some really cool visuals—recall Otto Piene’s smoke and burning drawings or, more recently, Andrew Bennett’s ritualistic incendiary canvases that turned out like intoxicating Op paintings—to which Mitchell adds a certain lyricism. These works (most are a series of almost wavelike motions or circular designs) fall somewhere between abstract elegy and landscape majesty, the novelty of the smoke medium maturing into a resonant beauty. Mitchell is able to apply the soot in varying amounts, resulting in inconsistencies in intensity, stray dots like pigments scattering from a brush’s bristles, and the surface itself often recalling a lithograph. They’re quietly seductive, the mind often finding naturalist suggestions in the smoke’s play on the paper: a flurry black marks suggesting a murder of crows, a series of converging curves almost forming a body’s curves, a deeply black feeling like a dispatch from deep space.
And then there’s “Them,” the one of two titled pieces here. It’s the one that looks more like a watercolor—or at least a piece of water-damaged paper. Mitchell goes extremely subtle, creating two amoebic shapes that barely overlap in one section of the composition, and at a few instances along the abstract shapes edges, the smoke seems to singe the page, resulting in that color of a used cigarette-filter’s end, all to familiar to any pack-a-day huffer. That hue—let’s call it carcinogenic brown—is one of the more unpleasant colors around. And Mitchell finds a way to make it something almost soothing in his alchemy of controlled fire.
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