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Painters & Photographers at Reilly Gallery, Providence College

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Painters & Photographers, curated by Jamilee Lacy, starts the gears turning with it’s title. Are these paintings or are they photographs? Yes, most of the artists presented use traditional photo processes to create their images, film, camera, enlarger, etc., but the image content is often one we associate with brush and canvas: color fields, abstract and geometric shapes, spatterings of color and smears of pigment. The artists are each expanding our traditional notions of photography as medium for strict representation and blurring the lines between their photography and other mediums like painting, architecture, digital media and graphic design.

Installation view, Painters & Photographers. Courtesy of Providence College Galleries.

Liz Nielsen's works, where geometric shapes float and stutter on a field of vivid color, are perhaps the most rooted in photographic history. Her colorful images are created by manipulating materials on the bed of a photo enlarger and draw reference to Man Ray’s rayographs. Unlike the black and white x-ray-like images of Ray’s in which objects can be readily identified, Nielsen’s compositions are full color and her shapes are ragged around the edges, as if cut from construction paper by a group of impatient school children studying Matisse. The result is dreamy and uninhibited, playful and minimal.

Similarly rooted within the photograph as a medium is Erin O’Keefe. O’Keefe’s works are the most recognizable as photographs, at least as we’ve been trained to see them—printed flat images in white frames fronted with glass. They also feel to be the most engaged in what it means to photograph, to capture light and shadow and transfer it to paper. The abstracted geometry within the images are constructed with flat colored paper backdrops and colored plexi, cut and arranged into simple compositions that, when lit, transform into the most enticing architectures and illusions. O’Keefe is using light and color play to create images that flatten three dimensions, build depth and form from two dimensional materials, and warp our sense of reality. Must like a prism, she is using photography's most vital element, light to expand our understanding of perception.

Installation view of Liz Nielsen in Painters & Photographers. Courtesy of Providence College Galleries.

Like O’Keefe, Anne Vieux and Jessica Labatte use assemblage and collage to photograph and mediate via the camera. Labatte uses a preconceived notion of photography as truth or evidence or reality to her advantage and allows particles of dust and lint and the very grain of the film itself to become a part of the image, an additional layer on top of her collage. These elements, often preserved as flaws by professional, especially commercial, photographers, enhance the images Labatte creates. They are evidence of process that identify them as handmade rather than digital constructions, like brush strokes, they become an inherent part of the composition.

Anne Vieux makes perhaps the largest attempt to go beyond the photograph. She lands somewhere between painting, sculpture and interior design. The work is billed in the gallery literature as an “immersive installation” but this personally feels like an overly ambitious way to describe what is actually presented.

The focal point of the gallery is centered on the back wall where one of Vieux’s images of layered mylar is wall-papered like a candy coated oil slick. In front of this is a seating area made up of matching floor covering and custom bench whose minimalist structure is enveloped in green sparkle powder coating and upholstered in faux suede print with Vieux’s psychedelic photo. The overall effect borders on overwhelming but is not entirely immersive being contained to the single flat wall and an isolated seating element.

But amidst the undulating rainbows of the gallery furniture and wall treatment of the installation is mounted a true gem of an artwork. More so than any other work in the show, it straddles the definitions of painting and photography, neither one nor the other. The piece is made of the same material as the bench but the texture of the suede is interrupted by a second image print on top, flattening the texture like a real-life photoshop tool.

Above all the other images Vieux’s framed work drifting on the oil slick wall, feels like it speaks most to photography now and the frustrations of the artists trying to bring the medium into a new era where is an equal to the old classics of painting and sculpture. This piece brings to life that ideas and textures that before I have personally only seen in digital prints and it is only upon close physical inspection that this piece can be fully appreciated.

Installation view of Erin O’Keefe & Anne Vieux in Painters & Photographers. Courtesy of Providence College Galleries.

Despite Nielson’s rooting in rayographs and O’keefe’s adherence to the traditional mechanics of photography, it is the small works of Ronnie E. Wright II that feel the most dated. His small digital prints, scaled as if to reference office printer paper, feel of a specific moment, the late 1990s to early 2000s. This was an era  when access to digital technology, like photoshop, created a pixelated and bitmapped lexicography for artists use as metaphor and abstraction. But like Nielsen and Labatte, Wright’s images are founded in process. Wright’s images are not photographs in the traditional sense but images and other material from historic books about Black American experience that he has appropriated and processed to a point where the digital information deteriorates into new patterns and pixelation patterns. They are not photographs but they are quiet painting either, their miniscule cubic geometry betraying their digital heritage. These images sit somewhere in between, which might fit their metaphor for black culture in a simultaneously satisfying and disquieting way.  

Painters & Photographers is a bright, bold and confident addition to the current conversation about where photography sits within the fine arts and its relationships to other media. Additionally, it celebrates and amplifies the strengths of the medium and the traditions that have shaped photography and our understanding of it.


Painters & Photographers is on view until November 11th.

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About Author

Raina Belleau is an artist living and working in Providence, RI. She received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has been shown at the Plains Art Museum (Fargo, ND), Not Gallery (Austin, TX), GRIN (Providence, RI) and in multiple group exhibitions around the country and is one half of the artist duo Belleau + Churchill.

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