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“Ravishing”: breathlessly beautiful, overwhelming, transporting. A word used to describe the extraordinary. In the group exhibit of the same name at Boston’s newest photography venue, 555 Gallery, five photographers reach beyond physical beauty to delve into facets of female strength and spirit. Interestingly, almost all of the artists have explored the visual representation of qualities that are usually invisible to the naked eye by incorporating some sort of head or body covering.
The impetus for this show came from the work of Jonathan Stark, whose collection “Emergence” focuses on the transformation of women who have undergone a physical or psychological ordeal and emerged stronger. Stark’s subjects coat, streak and letter their bodies with mud which cracks and falls away to reveal the skin beneath as a metaphorical expression of their inner transitions. Stark’s approach is multi-faceted, from sensual close-ups of the torso to full-body compositions that capitalize on facial expression and postural language, to double-exposed portraits whose layering creates deeper psychological dimensionality. Using a hand-held camera and B&W film, Stark’s imagery is dynamic, texturally rich and emotionally powerful.
Alicia Savage is the only artist in the show who did not use body coverings symbolically, as well as being the sole female exhibitor. Her athletic self-portraits exemplify the power of a soaring female spirit in her anti-gravitational series, “Grounded”. An invigorating exploration of color, shape and composition, Savage’s photographs feature her diagonal figure caught touching down before a plain studio backdrop with minimal, dramatic lighting. Emancipation fairly radiates from the frame as Savage’s gracefully outstretched body, flowing fabric swirling about her, resists the earth’s pull. Her striking compositions are surreal and exhilarating.
Bear Kirkpatrick delves into a very different aspect of female spirituality in his elaborate series of life-sized “Wallportraits”. Playing with the power of head and body coverings to evoke underlying character, Kirpatrick adorns, decorates, covers and coats his models. After the portrait session, each one is electronically woven into an appropriated wall painting that suggests a history. The direct, compelling expressions of his subjects are central to his composition and message. With fantastical narrative overlays, Kirkpatrick attempts to layer the physical with the metaphysical, using his camera “to find the ghosts of presence and memory, the vestigial elements we carry about us as invisibly as spirits”.
In his colorful series, “Voile”, Jeffrey Heyne explores the ability of a woman’s veil to “conceal, reveal and deceive”. He appropriates historic female figures from the postcards of famous paintings by Boticelli, Ingres and others, then “blends in a digitally created vertical veil, similar to a hanging shear curtain, with (super-saturated) colors derived from the painting palette itself.” The conspicuous contrast between these classically painted women and their vivid pop-art “veils” serves to amplify the effect of a veil to impart the competing attributes of chaste virtue and eroticism. I found Heyne’s approach to the female portrait unusual and fresh.
Leonard Nimoy uses veiling to explore eroticism in classical B&W nude studies. In his collection “Eye Contact”, Nimoy strives to capture “the instant between the private and the seen, that brief affirmation of the self, which I find deeply affecting.” Paradoxically, none of the models makes eye contact, their heads always averted, shadowed or veiled. Nimoy explains this was done in an attempt to release the models from their inhibitions but, to me, it seems to impart a denial of self. Despite some dramatic posing, Nimoy’s figures appear static and objectified in his small and beautifully printed high-contrast gelatin silver photographs.
“Ravishing” is a purposely provocative show. 555 Gallery owner and curator, Susan Nalband, offers: “Photography of the female body often lingers between beauty and cruelty, between documentary and fictional repertoire, revealing what lies beneath. The works of the five photographers chosen for this show will excite, sadden, amuse and anger the viewers. The images are as unique as women themselves.”
“Ravishing” will be on exhibit at 555 Gallery in South Boston through May 3, 2014, with a gallery talk by photographer Jonathan Stark on April 19th. For information and directions, go to: www.555Gallery.com
Feature image: “Grounded I, 2012” by Alicia Savage (courtesy of the artist and 555 Gallery)