Micah Danges, Bill Gerhard, Tim Portlock
Through February 13, 2013
By Daniel Gerwin
The Fleisher Art Memorial’s Wind Challenge is a great Philadelphia tradition that consistently puts forward interesting talents. I live in South Philly and like to tell myself that this exemplary community arts center is in my neighborhood, even though that’s a bit of a stretch. The current exhibit presents the second round of selected artists and is definitely worth a visit.
Tim Portlock occupies the first room, and though I realize his images reference both painting and photography, when I look at them I think of first-person-shooter video games. Portlock’s working material is computer game software, and I find the programming’s visual effects so characteristic in the large scale, high-resolution pictures that they lock tightly to the vocabulary of computerized rendering.
Portlock plays with the formulas of 19th century American landscape painting, in which artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church depicted a natural world (often with signs of human presence) blessed by divine light. In his own work, Portlock installs the Hudson River School’s messianic sunrises and hot-lava sunsets over scenes of American economic malaise. For this show, as in his recent Vox Populi exhibit, he presents images of Las Vegas, infamous now for its home foreclosures.
The Hudson River School reflected a deep sense of entitlement lying at the heart of Americans’ belief in Manifest Destiny, a doctrine that supported the continued genocide of Native Americans, so it’s fitting to consider Portlock’s vision in terms of video game carnage. In first-person-shooter games, human agency turns violently back on itself as we hunt each other down. In these games the natural world hardly registers except as a setting for our own brutality. Portlock’s computer-generated vistas are generally devoid of people and thus resemble game environments that appear deserted until we begin to move through them, when enemies (who become our victims) pop out from behind every wall and window.
Bill Gerhard’s work harkens back to American modernism, but adopts the now familiar strategy of pairing modernist aesthetics with post-modern methods. For the Wind Challenge he presents a palette of black and earthy yellow-browns, revisiting the 20th century monochrome with an especially close relationship to the paintings of Brice Marden and Barnett Newman. Gerhard seeks to introduce contingency and site-specificity by orchestrating controlled exposures of black paper to sunlight for various periods of time, allowing the original black to fade into a range of lighter tones and gradients.
Gerhard’s work leaves me considering the relationship between modes of making and the final result. How much does it matter whether a monochrome is made by painting it or by taping a sheet of paper to the window? Is it significant whether a painting took a month to make, or a sheet of paper a month to fade? To be sure, an object’s origin can be important: it makes a big difference if a pair of pants was made by people earning a decent wage but an identical pair was made by people paid pennies while locked in a sweatshop that can burn down at any minute. In Gerhard’s case, the methods seem less important than the work’s overwhelming reliance on the legitimating authority of the modernist canon. As I looked at Gerhard’s handsome arrangements, I felt that modernism’s stodgy assumptions of purity were not being challenged but reinforced.
Micah Danges’ work is based in photography, and his exhibit dissects some of the medium’s key elements and conventions, including frame, composition, and the quality of transparency that was once associated with the camera. He pursues a range of strategies, including a photograph featuring a houseplant with the middle section cut free and moved slightly to the right (Bathroom Scene), a photograph of a graffiti by a fissure in a rock with the center replaced by a closer view of the same rockface (Wall writing (Grand Canyon)), images of leaves, vines, and frames printed on fabric (Untitled), or layered above and below translucent aged paper under sheets of glass with painted-on suggestions of frames (Untitled (Table Top)). These works present nature at a photographic remove, further mediated by manipulated conventions of display.
The image fragments used by Danges in his various untitled works seem to be taken from Bathroom Scene, a banal little photograph of a potted plant beside a framed photograph (which I imagine to be sitting on the back of a toilet, but who knows). Prosaic domestic detail also plays a role in Bouquet 02, yellow and Bouquet 04, purple, a pair of sculptures consisting of vase-shaped trays filled part-way with water, in which float carefully torn paper towels decorated with line drawings of plants. These twin sculptures feel like a joke about still life as well as a poetic enactment of the mystery to be found in little things carefully noticed.
Daniel Gerwin is a painter living in Philadelphia, and his work can currently be seen in Your Face Is A Landscape, a group show at Field Projects in New York.