Hopping from one art exhibition to the other in Ventura College's two galleries, we get a sharp study in contrast--and a taste of the polarities in the world of fine art photography.
In the New Media Gallery's "Altered Images" show, the art is about transformation, with the artists intent on pushing around visuals and technical processes, accentuating the alteration. This art buzzes with the effort to grasp at something new.
Meanwhile, in the main Gallery 2, two photographers pursue a subtler art: that of the unadulterated but sensitively realized photograph as an indicator of the grand mystery of the everyday world. This art demands a close, aware eye and a patient mind.
Charles Schmalz and Robert G. Smith use varying approaches to arrive at roughly the same conclusion: The idiom can be transformative without being either technically manipulated or strictly reportorial.
With his quietly captivating work, San Francisco photographer Schmalz looks closely at objects and closely cropped scenes, seeking to emphasize their latent powers of allegory, political statements or ritualistic undercurrents. He doesn't have to go far to find fodder for his scheme. Scissors, gloves, statuary and even strategically placed knotholes assume unexpected presence in the gallery.
By and large, these are commonplace scenes presented in a way that suggest hints of desperation or pernicious irony, even when things are perfectly innocent at face value. In part, the show is loaded, fraught with hidden agendas and discreet barbs by virtue of context and arrangement.
"Trace Elements" finds a white glove hanging next to "Desperate With Diamonds." The latter work is a close-up view of a hand that, on closer view, reveals webbing between the fingers that is pierced and studded with diamonds.
One of the more striking images in the show, "Statuary Assemblage," is a view of a gathering of full-figure, mostly nude, quasi-classical statues that seem to be coyly herded into a fenced-in storage area. Hints of humor are tinged with distress, the image slyly mixing a sense of frolic with an image of mass incarceration.
And so it goes, with "Pervasive Wounds," a four-panel piece focused on the silhouetted, stenciled image of a woman on a wooden fence. Vis-a-vis the title, the knotholes in the wood grain look like wounds--a disguised treatise on violence against women.
Dry humor at its finest comes through with "A Boy Cast With Virgins, a Dilemma of Self," a tight shot of sets of ceramic figurines of disparate personality. Dickensian roustabout boys--hands in pockets, poised for mischief--sit on a shelf next to beatific out-of-focus virgins. Smirking, secular "show-me" brand skepticism nuzzles up against purity, piety and unblinking faith.
Clearly, given his telling titles and highly selective eye, Schmalz is after much more than a faithful, objective accounting of a visually interesting world. And those ceramic hands all lined up, like little soldiers, in "Manicures," show nails that seem as much weapons as they are fashion statements.
"Justice at the End of Its Tether," with gleaming scissors placed precariously around a penis, with its threat of castration, is no pretty sight or thought. Set against the rest of the images, the photograph has a harsh, uncharacteristic intensity, although the impact is softened by clever lighting and inconspicuous placement in a cranny of the gallery.
Smith's work, occupying the other half of the gallery, is the far more innocent and accessible of the two. He finds a poetic refuge in the art of rendering the concert world abstract via selective viewfinder techniques. He bows in the direction of Edward Weston in his images of sand dunes, boulders, an agave plant and peeling paint made to look figurative.
A more original perspective comes through from unlikely places--as is often the nature of art. Smith captures a foggy romanticism with an image beneath a bridge in Huntsville, Ill. Best of all, a one-room school in Illinois becomes strangely dingy and beautiful through Smith's camera eye. Scabby, peeling white walls, the limb-like heating duct and implements from another era conjoin into an image humming with muted drama and mystery.
Also at the college, several artists show works that operate on the fringes of established media over at the New Media Gallery, a fitting venue. The art making up "Altered Images" tends to involve works-in-progress and processes-in-progress rather than end results.
Pamela Pitts' feminist theme is driven home, with scant subtlety, through her blending of glossy images of young women in magazines and advertisements with enlarged, tinted photos of women's marches.
John Watson's surrealistically tinted photos find a nude male in quasi-mythical or fantastic settings. Looking at "Zeus on Santa Monica Blvd.," the question arises: who is that masked, nude man on a Los Angeles rooftop?
Frank Rozasy's electronic photo prints present archival photographs, treated and distorted. The best of these is "Kitchen Klatsch," a seemingly candid and voyeuristic snapshot of women circa the 1950s, chatting and smoking in a kitchen.
John Drooyan's work relishes the merging of 2-D Cibachrome prints festooned with 3-D artifacts and remnants. Stuff and junk are attached to his assemblage works with a lighthearted zeal and no apparent thematic baggage to get in the way of good clean fun.
With "Altered Images," we get the sense of techniques used in the service of techniques, an art all dressed up but with nowhere in particular to go.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* WHAT: Fine Art Photography.
* WHO: Charles Schmalz and Robert Smith at Gallery 2; "Altered Images" (John Watson, John Drooyan, Alicia Bailey, Pamela Pitt, Frank Rozasy) at the New Media Gallery.
* WHEN: Through April 21.
* WHERE: Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road in Ventura.
* HOW MUCH: Free.
* CALL: 654-6468.