Franz Jantzen wants to see it all. The photo collages in his “Ostinato,” at Hemphill Fine Arts, don’t attempt to depict everything, of course. They focus on a particular place or object, whether a grand old theater such as the Loew’s in Jersey City or an in-flight meal on a tray. But the Washington photographer shoots his subjects multiple times from a set height and angle, and then stitches the images together on a computer, so the final composition combines multiple perspectives.
It’s pretty much impossible to write about Jantzen’s work without using the term “cubist,” but that word is not quite right. Neither is “ostinato,” which refers to a musical note or phrase that’s repeated without variation. Such cubist painters as Picasso and Braque were looser and more fanciful in their use of multiple vantage points. Yet Jantzen’s photo assemblages aren’t merely scientific, in the manner of one of his inspirations: multi-exposure images made by automated satellites or planetary rovers to depict the worlds beyond our own.
Perhaps to assuage his regret at abandoning film photography, Jantzen decided that digital image-making is a different form. “It is an entirely new medium altogether, one closer to painting and sculpture,” he writes. That’s arguable, but the artist’s switch to pixels has encouraged him to take an art-historical approach. “Ostinato” includes some still lives of fruit and flowers, classic oil-painting subjects, and a fractured view of an actual painting, “Study No. 32 (I Like Cezanne).” There’s also a deconstructed/reconstructed view of a Campbell’s Soup box, which nods to Warhol.
In the tradition of pre-digital photography, Jantzen sometimes considers ordinary things: a ragged storefront, a tree stump or his hand holding a book. But digital imagery, for Jantzen at least, leads to large and often architectural subjects. That makes sense, because the photographer has become sort of a builder himself. The multitiered work in “Ostinato” couldn’t actually exist in the 3-D world, but it is impeccably constructed and kind of grand.
Where Jantzen tends to focus on human-made or -arranged subjects, Georg Kuettinger takes his digital camera into the wild. Or at least to locations that are as wild as can be found in Western Europe, where landscapes tend to be well-manicured. The German photographer, having his first American solo show at Project 4, constructs large-format, extremely widescreen vistas from multiple images. There’s a patchwork aspect to his photo collages, especially on close inspection, but from a distance they appear nearly natural and almost seamless. The slight jumpiness of cut-together pieces such as “Salinas del Janubio” or “Polders” plays on the human-imposed patterns of, respectively, agricultural fields or a latticework of canals.
Sometimes, Kuettinger enlists close-ups to construct a sweeping tableau. Four images of forests, from Spain, Portugal and Italy, show tree trunks at close hand. Unlike most such photos, these are horizontal rather than vertical, revealing only a small portion of the trees’ height. But the images are stacked atop one another on the wall, so that they cumulatively present a sense of towering. Together, the four sets of trees seem to be in a kind of dance, and the white patches of sunlight that penetrate the canopies could be theatrical spotlights.
White is a motif in these pieces. Large areas of absent color suggest snow in fields, but it’s impossible to be sure. The chalky expanses in a image of Brittany are probably made of sand, while the eerie, ivory formations in a depiction of Turkey could be ice or salt. But maybe not. Kuettinger’s “remixed” photographs skew the natural world just enough to be intriguingly mysterious.
Most of the “Travelogue” photographs in Joyce Yu-Jean Lee’s “Passages” were also made in Europe, but the shots feature neither open spaces nor abundant light. Exhibited in a dark, curtained room at Hamiltonian Gallery, and illuminated by pinpoint spotlights, the small glossy images focus on windows, skylights and peepholes. The pictures are sometimes art- or architecture-historical, featuring details of such buildings as Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam or the Daniel Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum in Berlin. When Lee photographs the Great Wall of China (her one non-European subject), she presents a tightly circumscribed view, not the usual attempt to represent the structure’s vastness.
Although some of the structures she photographs are one of a kind, Lee strips them to basic elements: shape, opening, light. The result is ominous yet enticing. The tight apertures suggest both entrapment and escape, much as they balance darkness and light. These are postcards from some sort of edge.
The contrast is apparently one of Lee’s concerns. Behind another curtain are two video/performance pieces, “Last Light” and “First Light.” In the former, projected on two walls, a man and a woman react differently when a block of light appears and then expands, crowding them. It’s less compelling than “First Light,” which is projected on the floor. In this seven-minute loop, a woman is contained inside a circle of light. She looks up, as if trapped in a hole, searching for a way out. It’s an elementary mime exercise, but the downward perspective makes the sequence unusually powerful. Will the woman escape? Is the circle of light a prison window or an escape hatch? Unlike most video-art pieces, “First Light” packs sufficient drama to make such questions interesting.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through March 10 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-234-5601; hemphillfinearts.com.
On view through March 17 at Project 4, 1353 U St. NW, third floor; 202-232-4340; project4gallery.com.
On view through March 10 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Suite 101; 202-332-1116; hamiltoniangallery.com.