The photography exhibition "Within/Without," at the C. Grimaldis Gallery through Jan. 16, featuring 10 artists, makes you play conceptual hopscotch as you jump from photos of the Sphinx, to desktop-ready still-life setups, to homeless camps.
There is a poetic rhythm to Alfredo Jaar's 15-photo series 'The Sound of Silence' in the back of the gallery. The framed photos are arranged in a grid of five rows, with three photos in each row. They appear to have all been taken on the same overcast, gloomy day. At the top, close to the ceiling, there are photos of the water and a distant landform; the next row of photos of barbed wire and a watchtower are followed by dreamlike interior shots of jail cells. There's a barbed-wire fence again, and then bare exterior walls and an empty courtyard. In the last row, inches from the floor, are three final photos of caves. Nothing in these photos tells you outright that it's Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. The photos' sensitivity and softness and the damp, blue light in most of the photos cut down the severity of what happened here. History is muted and made pretty, if solemn.
Nearby, four large prints by local artist Ben Marcin depict homeless camps. He took all of them from roughly the same respectful distance, and each camp is centered in the frame. It makes you want to pick up on the details: There's a man nestled into all of those blankets inside of this large, concrete pipe, but there are houses just 20 feet away. In another, a humble shack is a portrait of its maker, with camouflage, American flags, Ravens flags, and a Confederate flag as decor, along with a meek "Merry Christmas" banner. Another shows a little ramshackle bar, complete with bar stools and milk crates and a box fan, against a dappled, springy forest. Then there's one of overgrown weeds, ferns, and bushes, with no human evidence except for a small path and a hole cut into the bush.
The melancholy in Dimitra Lazaridou's photos of empty, unpeopled spaces—both large, sleek C-prints on aluminum—is balanced by their formal beauty. In the one photo of a humble doorway, it looks like nighttime with fluorescent light shining evenly upon the building. Two shapely, bare, Matissean trees spring up just a foot from the building; the light projects their sharp shadows on the walls. The other print, with large swaths of artificial green and yellow light on an empty lot, recalls the lonesome feeling of walking around a city or suburb at night—the light and the environment are symbols of life, but no one's there.
On the other side of the wall where Lazaridou's doorway photo hangs is a hefty aluminum light-box display for Isaac Julien's 'Still Life Studies, No. 2'—a huge close-up, backlit photographic display of gorse, a shrubby, prickly plant with yellow flowers that grows all over along highways and fields, seemingly wherever it wants to, in the British Isles. On breezy days in valleys where gorse grows, the air smells like coconut. These are observations that the late filmmaker Derek Jarman might make, and probably did make, because this photo is part of a larger series by Julien of photos from Jarman's garden in Kent, England. It's slightly frustrating here; out of place and isolated, this presentation could feel like a lot of showboating for a simple macro photo of a flower. Still, the heavy-handed light-box display (a "Duratran DIASEC hand welded aluminum lightbox" according to the label) is a clue to look into it more and find out what else is here.
To the left and right of Julien's piece are four black-and-white photos by German artist Bernd Radtke. Two small panoramas depict rural French landscapes with super-fine detail; one features an enormous boulder with a thin, wiry cross atop it in a low, grassy field. Another shows a crude road and the edge of a town and its old buildings. In both of these, nearly every stone and blade of grass are in focus. Radtke's other two photos are larger interior shots of a small church and a window, and although the contrast (the velvety, seductive matte black) is powerful, there's not very much to hold onto for long.
Local artist (and philanthropist) Neil Meyerhoff has two lovely, well-composed photos on display that both depict brightly colored staircases, but do little else. 'Pink Stairway at Restaurant' is an abstract-ish pink and yellow color study, and in 'Interior Stairway with Slippers' small hints (the style of architecture, the embroidered slippers on the stairs) make you think these were taken somewhere else; they're like pictures you'd pause for while flipping through a travel magazine. And then there's Wouter Deruytter's 'Sphinx' series: a contact sheet of 12 black-and-white photos from inside the ancient structure, all from the same point of view, blown up to wall size, flanked by two 5-feet-square photos of the Sphinx's base up close. One of them is more abstract and less obvious; the other is a paw, with an iconic pyramid in the background's center. Most of us are familiar with the Sphinx even if most of have never seen it in person; we've all seen pictures of it (generally from the same point of view), and maybe that's why this different perspective feels a bit lackluster.
Some of the works in the show use artifice or manipulation to collapse or expand space, to say something about memory and photography. Marja Pirilä projects exterior imagery—trees and buildings—onto interior spaces using a camera obscura, which is why the projected imagery is upside-down, and then she photographs the space. The result is somewhat uncanny, but mostly it feels like something I've seen before on Tumblr. But maybe if I recognized these places, I'd feel differently. Local artist Chris Peters' work, which was recently in a show at Current Space, uses similar techniques but it's staged in Baltimore; the context is more easily appealing.
Frank Dituri's collection of small, framed photographs hang around each other in a cluster. Most of them are like tourist photos, taken in Italy, and in each one, most of them are blurred, and some contain select details that are extra sharp. The person is almost blurred out, but the colors and light around them are vivid, which is kind of how we remember things, selectively.
John Ruppert's large-scale, elongated prints are comically otherworldly; I can't shake that 'Dome/Mehrauli Archaeological Park I' looks like the Death Star, especially when it's hung on the wall next to a close-up of a natural granite fissure, shot against an egg-yolk-orange background, so it looks like the surface of another planet. Ruppert's prints feel like a less-serious take on the limits of "truth" in photography.
Some of works in "Within/Without" feel out of place or lacking in context, like they might be better off in a smaller show, because they get overshadowed by others that seem more complex or historically important. Still, the photos relate loosely to each other in terms of space and place, and by doing so, they grapple with memory and history—and alter our views of both.