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What happens when you take a picture – worth a thousand words – and integrate elements of written language? In “Wordplay”, at Panopticon Gallery in Boston’s Kenmore Square, thirteen photographers do just that to shape the meaning of their work. Running the gamut from studied and serious to outright funny, these artists explore the myriad ways words affect our visual interpretation of the world.
Frank Armstrong has had a long career of photographing the landscape of his native Texas and the rural southwest. When he turns his camera on the abandoned and often unnoticed remnants of human inhabitance, he crafts the ravages of time into an anthropologic study of our culture. Armstrong’s open curiosity and candid demeanor are evident in his keenly observed and straightforward B&W compositions, whose riveting tonality further awaken the viewer to the poignancy and enigma of his subjects.
An accomplished “street photographer” who still shoots B&W film, Bill Franson capitalizes on the accidental play of words he finds (mostly) in urban areas. He is particularly adept at capturing the serendipitous visual paradoxes of letters and words out of context. In tightly composed and tonally rich gelatin silver prints, Franson enables the viewer to frame the world differently. His shrewd observations always invite further questioning.
With an edgy photojournalistic style, Randall Armor captures literal juxtapositions and absurdities as he travels the cities and roads of the world. He captures movement, or implies it through angled shots, while his use of a hard flash produces surreal lighting that simultaneously suggests a suspension in time. Armor’s contrasty B&W prints align with the contrast in the written directives he photographs.
Eva Timothy’s meticulous, close-up B&W studies of the written word in antique documents have such sensuous tonality and evocative textures that the viewer is engulfed in the historical moment. Through her inspection of scholarly icons, we instinctively wander into an exploration of their meanings and resonance in today’s society.
Rachel Phillips similarly recalls the past with her symbolic, wet transfer pigment prints. Her layered approach of photographing diminutive paper houses that she constructs from letters and envelopes and then prints onto addressed, stamped and dated vintage envelopes is a deep contemplation of the meaning of house and home. Her warm palette and balanced compositions gently evoke a long-venerated and largely vanished form of communication.
In pieces spanning over fifteen years, Stephen Sheffield has inlaid or attached photographs (as well as other articles) to vintage hardbound books. His graphically bold ”artists books” are figurative meditations on the power of the printed word. Most of Sheffield’s constructions convey some form of peril, warning of dire threats from evils such as slavery, sex crimes or the menacing events in newspaper headlines. Others are more sardonic, such as the home improvement volumes depicting the hazards of a domestic money pit. All are beautifully rendered, offering multi-sensory and thought-provoking investigation.
Jim Fitts and Shannon McDonald both construct picture and word collages, but to vastly different effect. Fitts creates his assemblages from original and vintage photographs layered with a wide variety of pictorial elements like print ads and memorabilia like ticket stubs. His images strike a cautionary tone (sometimes even incorporating yellow “Caution” tape) that hints at broad societal challenges, such as unemployment and alcoholism. Reminiscent of a personal diary or scrapbook, Fitts’ rectilinear montages are at once revealing and mysterious.
Shannon McDonald combines provocative phrases, colorful paints and magazine clippings of fashion models to create her collages. She constructs a composite “everywoman” out of these idealized female features and positions each like a religious idol in the center of the image, framed by fanciful, vibrant surroundings. Her subjects appear to brim with feelings and desires, but McDonald cunningly invites the viewer’s participation by leaving out key words in her chalk-white cursive captions.
Samuel Quinn’s plaintive typewritten messages declare an introspective irony. His close-up, straightforward B&W compositions carry an intimacy that works to assuage the viewer and affirm solidarity. By contrasting the immediacy of his despondent statements on an outdated manual typewriter, Quinn heightens both the humor and universality of his message.
“Wordplay”, a pleasingly cohesive show with broad emotional range, will be at Panopticon Gallery through June 9, 2014. For information and directions, go to: http://www.panopticongallery.com/exhibition-gallery/wordplay/#frank_armstrong_33.jpg