'PhotoGenesis': Fine Prints

Travis Fullerton's colorful
Travis Fullerton's colorful "Amusements of America, Hampton, Virginia," part of "PhotoGenesis." (By Travis Fullerton)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

"PhotoGenesis," at the McLean Project for the Arts, isn't your traditional photography exhibition. Among the works in this 16-artist show -- whose participants all use photography as, at minimum, "a building block or elemental ingredient" -- are a couple of pieces that one probably wouldn't, strictly speaking, even describe as photographs. Lisa McCarty's mixed-media "That much nearer," for instance, resembles old-school abstract painting far more than photography, although the artist has applied prints featuring digital imagery to the surface of her distressed-looking canvas, which is simultaneously built up and abraded. Similarly, Shahla Arbabi's "Fly Zone #42" and "Fly Zone #44" use photographs as sculptural elements, incorporating strips of unremarkable snapshots into found-object constructions that are reminiscent of model airplanes.

But those aren't the most striking or innovative uses of photography in the show, which was juried by Phillips Collection curator Stephen Bennett Phillips, associate curator Charles Brock of the National Gallery of Art and independent curator Claudia Bohn-Spector. Among the exhibition's standouts are two works by Maria Karametou, who prints photographs on tea bags. Mounted under glass along with a few stray hairs, the artist's "Smooth" and "Time" reference the cycle of life, with the inherently fugitive nature of her medium underscoring, in poetic fashion, the impermanence of our own existence.

Franz Jantzen's "McSorley's Bar" is a more dramatic image. Incorporating more than 1,000 digital images stitched together on the computer, the 38-by-68-inch black-and-white inkjet print on plastic documents the layout of McSorley's Old Ale House in New York City, as if seen with its roof removed. The bar top, the floor, each table and chair, along with the sidewalk outside -- everything is shown in the kind of exquisite detail that would be impossible for any single eye, even a mechanical one, to record without blinking. It's like a motion picture panning shot, condensed into a single frame. Aside from its stunning visual impact, it makes a conceptual point about the nature of seeing. Like a computer that can make sense of hundreds of successive images, it really is our brain, after all, and not merely our eyes, that we see with.

That's the same point made by Travis Fullerton, whose quadriptych "Amusements of America, Hampton, Virginia" presents, in four colorful frames, multiple moments of seeing compressed into a single memory. As photography, the artist's panorama of the parking lot of the Hampton Coliseum, set up with amusement park rides, is pretty straightforward. Still, the underlying message -- that the act of seeing doesn't take place at a single moment, but over time -- is apt.

Other notable contributions to "PhotoGenesis" include Michael C. Mendez's antique-looking photograms of empty liquor bottles, which comment on the cliched but all-too-often accurate stereotype of the alcoholic or drug-abusing artist. Like Jantzen, Mendez stitches his oversize pictures together from smaller ones, except, in Mendez's case, he uses a patchwork of actual prints.

As the exhibition's title suggests, many of the artists in "PhotoGenesis" use photography not as an end in and of itself, but as the beginning of something. More often than not, it's less a question of technique than a way of calling into question the very way in which we record, process and interpret visual information.

As more than one artist suggests in the written statements that accompany the show, the genesis alluded to in "PhotoGenesis" is a process whereby birth is given not to new photographic art forms -- after all, you won't see too many of those here -- but to new conversations. Conversations that, as Mendez writes, are "then picked up by the viewer."

PHOTOGENESIS Through Jan. 13 at the McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. 703-790-1953. http://www.mpaart.org. Open Tuesday-Friday 10 to 4; Saturdays 1 to 5. Free.

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