Works of art can be said to exist fully only when they are put on view.
It's the encounter with the viewer that makes art, well, art. And there are certain, straightforward ways we expect those encounters to occur when entering a museum — paintings hanging on a wall, sculptures resting on pedestals, that sort of thing.
Photographer Gregory Vershbow toys with those expectations in an intriguing exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, "Site Unseen." Contemporary exhibits are not a Walters specialty; this one fits beautifully into the venue.
Vershbow's sharply defined color photos capture art objects in a kind of limbo, sheathed in plastic or packed in crates. They've been shot in the kinds of museum places found behind "Employees Only" signs.
These artworks are in storage or awaiting restoration, leaning against walls, lying on shelves. In this context, they seem melancholy or lost, as if unsure of their place in the world now that the connection to the public has been broken.
In "Egyptian Statue No. 2," an ancient Egyptian man and woman still hold onto their pride and dignity, which would be readily apparent if they were in a normal spot behind a case in a museum's ancient artifacts room. But now, with a plastic sheet over their heads, those figures reveal something more like apprehension, too.
It's the same with "The Magician's Assistant." The object at hand is a classic nude statue, arms raised elegantly overhead as the woman arranges her hair.
In a quiet niche of some stately gallery, such a figure would be easily appreciated in all its poetic grace. In a wooden box, where Vershbow photographed her, the woman seems to be trying to back away from the slats meant to hold her in place.
That's not all to the image, though. The statue, which dominates the 30-by-40-inch photo, appears at first glance to be life-sized. But as you take in the background — a stark white storage room — the statue is revealed to be just a delicate little thing, looking all the more fragile in its captive-like condition.
That playing with perspective is part of the appeal in Vershbow's photographs. It's used to particularly telling effect in "DC #1."
Here, filling the foreground, part of a statue appears to emerge from a crate — the heads and shoulders of two women, one holding her head in grief and draping an arm over her companion.
It's a classic image of antiquity (and many an old cemetery), and would be fairly striking with almost any background. Vershbow places these forlorn figures into a provocative context, with the neoclassical U.S. Capitol looming in the distance, outlined against an active sky.
The photography now takes on extra layers, needless to say, given how many folks, of all political persuasions, grieve over the current occupants of that capitol and the work they are (or are not) doing.
Heavy-handed? Way too obvious? Perhaps. But the piece speaks, as do all of the others in the exhibit, none more compellingly than "Archangel." A sculpted figure, with arms folded, looks as if it has just awoken (from the dead?), its open eyes focused on some distant spot. The body seems about to strain against the plastic covering that hugs its contours.
Like all the photographs, this one invites long looks, long thoughts.
If you go
"Gregory Vershbow: Site Unseen" runs through Sept. 8 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free admission. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.