One of the reasons why I have never followed abstract photography much is because so often it is merely decorative. There’s nothing wrong with decorative (I like looking at beauty as much as everybody else), but in an art context I’m usually looking for more, for something that engages me or intrigues me. Unlike abstract painting, abstract photography doesn’t seem to be able to easily achieve this; to me, most abstract photography is like “easy listening” - pleasing, but not more than that (I’m sure abstractionistos/as will disagree with this assessment).
I was thus very pleasantly surprised when I went to see “Transmutations: Abstractions in Nature”, currently on view at Michael Mazzeo. According to the press release, the show “consists of imagery in which either the photographer alters nature or allows nature to alter the photographic material”. Having a theme obviously helps this show avoid the sense of randomness that can often be found at group shows of abstract photography (lest people want to infer something from this sentence about the Aperture show on abstract photography: Simply don’t. I have not seen that show, yet). But of course having a theme is no guarantee of success. Every group show lives from its images, from how they work together, and this is why “Transmutations” is such a success.
“Transmutations” not only contains some stunning imagery (my favourites being Caleb Charland’s work, part of which is shown above in the installation shot, and new images by Sebastian Lemm), but it also holds together and is presented so well. Michael really knows how to present work in (literally) the best light (disclaimer: I worked with him on my last curatorial effort, “Bare”, shown at the gallery half a year ago).
What is more, “Transmutations” also very neatly shows how you can celebrate photography’s diversity without creating an incoherent and utter mess. There are worlds between layering images via multiple exposures, having the sun burn a whole into your photographic paper, and having bacteria consume the photo paper’s gelatin emulsion - some diversity! Anything is possible if creative minds are involved in image making!
If you’re in town, “Transmutations” (still up until June 20th) is a clear must-see show.