One would not expect Debi Cornwall's photographs of the detention centers at Guantanamo Bay to be beautiful or poetic or cute. She is, after all, a former civil rights lawyer who returned to photography after a 12-year law career (Cornwall studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked for Mary Ellen Mark and Sylvia Plachy before attending Harvard Law School). But a quick glance at the sparkling turquoise Caribbean or of toys and a child's T-shirt emblazoned with "Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," from the Gitmo gift shop (yes, a gift shop) suggest it might not be such a bad place after all.
Then the creepiness settles in. Cornwall's photographs, which make up her current exhibition at Philadelphia Photo Arts and her book, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay (Radius, 2017), represent only what she, accompanied by a military escort, was allowed to shoot. That's why a group of soldiers on a smoke break at the beach are viewed from the back; an inviting-looking kiddie pool is devoid of children; and rooms and cells are empty except for the incidental pair of shoes or neatly folded jailhouse clothing. Moreover, every digital file Cornwall took with her upon leaving Guantanamo Bay underwent an official approval process.
Cornwall is one of many photographers who've made the trek to Guantanamo Bay and been taken on a guided tour of the premises. Still, she managed to turn her circumscribed access to her advantage. A plastic pool monster in the kiddie pool takes center stage in Cornwall's lens, turning an everyday scene into a malevolent one. An empty interrogation chair occupies the back of a room like an enormous filthy throne (the composition of that picture made me think of Irving Penn's portrait of a tortured-looking Truman Capote writhing on a chair in a corner).
Cornwall took her project farther afield, photographing former prisoners who were relocated to Slovakia, Algeria, Germany, and Albania — countries with which they had no previous affiliation and whose respective languages they do not understand. For these portraits, she chose to pose her subjects with their backs to her. Each man is shown in a desolate landscape or run-down neighborhood, facing his uncertain future.
Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 215-232-5678, philaphotoarts.org. Through Aug. 25.
Regular visitors to Fleisher/Ollman may remember Chris Corales' colorful, deliberately off-center collages from a summer group show there in 2011, curated by the L.A. artist Chris Johanson. Corales, who died this year, is being remembered in a small solo exhibition of his work.
The title, "A Passer-By in His Own Moment," was borrowed from Corales' own writings, another creative outlet for him, and it aptly describes the nature of his art, which typically was cobbled from such materials as found paper, museum board, and found book-binding cloth, all held together with adhesive. Strips of different-colored pieces of paper and cloth intersect in open-ended grid formations, their compositions possibly inspired by aerial views of city streets or constructivist paintings.
Corales' way with words was evident in the titles of his collages: Fire Island Kiosk, Nook Variety, and Summer Stock are a few. But an exuberant (by Corales' standards) 2003 work that suggests a reassembling of parts of wooden toys or shop signs, remained mysteriously Untitled.
Fleisher Ollman, 1216 Arch St., by appointment in August but generally open 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. 215-545-7562, fleisher-ollmangallery.com. Through Aug. 24.
Matt Neff and Alisha Wessler make a sympathetic pairing in "Legerdemain," an exhibition curated by Kayla Romberger for Tiger Strikes Asteroid.
Neff, an artist, printer, and director of undergraduate programs in fine arts and the common press at the University of Pennsylvania, makes essentially abstract sculptures from found materials that reincorporate parts of earlier works of his (also made from found materials). Wessler, of New York, transforms everyday found objects into uncanny ones. Both artists obfuscate the familiar through staging and trickery.
I've always found Neff's works too varied in look and meaning; here, they make sense together visually. It would seem the underlying theme linking these sculptures is the systematic stealing of land from African Americans in the South that occurred until at least the 1950s, perhaps most notoriously by the Masonite Corp. Neff addresses this directly in one work, In a land of half-truths, great lies are built, in which he juxtaposed a large scan of a newspaper article detailing the then-known thefts with a large piece of glass leaning against it. His other sculptures refer to racial oppression obliquely. Intended or not, his Proportionate response, created from a curved support for a drum head and a stick of wood, simultaneously evokes works by the black artists Martin Puryear and the late Terry Adkins.
Wessler is more of a conjurer than Neff, and she's taking her aesthetic cues from untaught African and African American artists and craftspeople for the look of her works, but she's clearly also fluent with Marcel Duchamp's Readymades and Meret Oppenheim of the fur-covered teacup saucer and spoon. Her piece The Beard, which is simply a found floor duster (or something like that), mounted on the wall, is one of her cleverest deceptions.