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Sunday, November 02, 2008

N.M. Photographers Inspire Awe

By Wesley Pulkka
For the Journal

The University of New Mexico has a world-class photography collection that tends to spawn great shows. "Photography: New Mexico" with curator Thomas Barrow represents an excellent group of New Mexico photographers in a stunning show. The "Photography: New Mexico" exhibit is accompanied by a beautifully executed book by the same title assembled by Fresco Fine Art Publications.
        This is an awe-inspiring exhibition with too many highlights to mention in full. Subject matter ranges from the compelling portraits of women by Gay Block to the baroque complexity of the late Jim Kraft, who was one of the most imaginative photographers in New Mexico.
        In between are landscapes, architecture, decaying technology, abstract imagery and mixed-media works.
        Kraft's works reveal the innovative artist's elegantly complex imagination. "Dedication/Desiccation, 2008," which was printed after his death in 2007, is equally powerful and fragile in its depiction of the human life cycle. The unnerving scene of a child's funeral is surrounded by abstract botanical forms that lend an artificial feeling to the real flowers surrounding the body. On the upper left are two desiccated corpses that may have been exhumed from a peat bog. The framed lower half of the image seamlessly flows into the unconfined upper half suggestive of the child's passage into the spiritual realm.
        The whole piece is reminiscent of a haiku poem that describes how the power of a butterfly's fragile beauty exceeds the brute strength of a grizzly bear.
        The first time I saw selections from Gay Block's portraits of women series, I missed the point. What appear to be rather banal snapshots of young girls and their grown-up selves are truly compelling time compressors that offer viewers enough information to fill in the missing years.
        Each of these diptychs pairs the adult with the child, allowing us to see the child within the adult as well as the ability to see the future from the child's perspective. I was drawn to these quiet portraits from across the gallery.
        Betty Hahn is a perennial favorite of mine because of her sense of humor and matter-of-fact approach to image making. A bargain-addicted friend of Hahn's once bought an entire shopping cart full of Mickey Mouse cameras. Hahn, seeing potential in this pile of kitsch, bought a bunch of them and proceeded to travel the world taking serious pictures with them. She said people automatically smiled as Hahn placed Mickey's face over hers to take the shot.
        The Lone Ranger and Tonto have been an inspiration to Hahn, who enhances her work long after its left the darkroom. In "Starry Night IV, 1975" Hahn used watercolor and applied stars over a cyanotype of the Lone Ranger and Tonto astride their horses. Through fictional television heroes and cartoon mice, Hahn lampoons and reveres American icons.
        Edward Ranney offers a series of pueblo ruins in black and white that capture the timelessness of the Southwestern landscape. In "Pueblo San Lazaro, Galisteo Basin, NM 2006" Ranney poignantly depicts the valiant efforts of human construction versus the natural dissolution of the physical world. A column of adobe bricks jutting from a cliff are all that remain of a once noble structure.
        While trying to draw attention to this show through descriptions of a few pieces, I realize that I'm trying to empty an ocean with a teaspoon and a toy bucket. This is an amazing must-see exhibition.
        If you go
        WHAT: "Photography: New Mexico"
        WHEN: Through Dec. 16. Hours are: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5-8 p.m. Tuesday evenings and 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call 277-4001
        WHERE: University of New Mexico Art Museum, Center for the Arts
        HOW MUCH: Free