Since the late 1970s, Robert Asman's silver gelatin prints of his photographs have been noticed as much for their imagery - which runs the gamut from bluntly uningratiating to ecstatic - as for his artistry with paper and chemicals. Now, a retrospective of Asman's photographs at the Print Center, "Robert Asman: Silver Mine," organized by its director, Elizabeth Spungen, shows off his alchemy as applied to such diverse subjects as city trees, nudes, developing trays, and clouds.
Philadelphia, where Asman photographed and taught for 30 years (he currently lives in Asheville, N.C.), is the subject and the backdrop in his early black-and-white photographs from 1979, many of which capture the harsh lives of trees on urban streets. Later, his trees become obvious metaphors for humans, as in Bondaged Tree, (1992), in which a tree intricately tied with black rubber supports immediately suggests a bound figure. Then again, some of his pictures are as plain and everyday as a William Eggleston snapshot - and not as appealing in black and white.
Asman's nudes, which he began in the late 1980s, are the logical development of his tortured trees but also mark the beginning of his experimentations with chemical manipulations and works made from paper negatives. I wondered if he thought his images of male and female subjects might not be explicit enough - this was after the heyday of Mapplethorpe, after all - but his manipulations add a layer of mystery and darkness that is more sinister than any graphic image. It's hard to look at some of these works and not feel like a fly on the wall at a sadomasochistic tryst.
The trays that hold photographic developer would not seem an obvious choice of subject for anyone, which is probably why I did a double- take when I realized what these encrusted objects were. (I also would not have expected to encounter developing trays posed straight-on like portraits, either - they reminded me of the first time I saw John Coplans' photographs of his own aged body parts.) Asman's developing trays are the repositories of all his chemical experiments, of course, and they look like the surface of the moon and are just as beautiful in their own way.
His photographs of clouds must be a nod to Alfred Stieglitz's famous "Equivalents" series of clouds, shot between 1925 and 1934 and often considered to be the first photographs to free subject matter from a literal interpretation. But, through chemical manipulations, Asman has turned his photographs into paintings, in which his swirls and puddles of selenium, bleach, tea, and sepia are transformed into colors that conjure the sublime.
From a distance, Marilyn Holsing's painted drawings at Gallery Joe look like small tapestries or toile fabrics. That's no accident - up close, Holsing's pastoral images of the young women of Marie Antoinette's court are composed of tiny lines of ink drawn in embroiderylike patterns.
At first, too, Holsing's images of adolescent girls in meadows and glades suggest harmless play, until you see that they are gossiping, spying, possibly even conspiring. They may themselves be in jeopardy of some kind (little do they know!). And instead of wearing period clothing, Holsing's girls are dressed in shirtwaist dresses reminiscent of Patty McCormack in the The Bad Seed.
The menacing edge to this work, however, comes through most dramatically in the gallery's "Vault" space, where two niches in two adjacent corners of the room display Holsing's cut-paper dioramas of Marie fleeing into ominous landscapes, both of which feature overhead animated video projections of changing light and shadows of flying birds paired with the recorded sounds of leaves and grass blowing in the wind, singing birds, lowing cattle, and baa-ing sheep, courtesy of her collaborators Matthew Suib, Aaron Igler, and Chris Davison.
Kevin Strickland's graceful but slightly quirky furniture, constructed from walnut, wenge, cherry, and white oak, is paired with his like-minded minimal woodcuts and aquatints at Works on Paper Gallery.
All his exquisitely wrought tables, chairs, stools, and consoles use a geometry similar to that of his works on paper, so you'd do well to buy pieces in all media and display them together in the same room. Take your cues from the gallery's own liminal installation of Strickland's riff on Kasimir Malevich's suprematism, Square Table and Square Chairs, in its back room, surrounded by his prints.