A three-week artist residency at Monte Azul, a combination contemporary art center/eco-resort/nature preserve in the rain forest of southern Costa Rica, clearly agreed with Eileen Neff.
The Philadelphia conceptual artist and photographer returned from her January 2014 sojourn with a body of work that easily qualifies as her most romantic to date. Neff's work has often captured the inherent poetry in fleeting moments, but this is a wholehearted embrace of unexpected encounters in an unfamiliar place.
As with her first exhibition at Bridgette Mayer Gallery three years ago, her current one there, "Traveling Into View," is ingeniously installed, transforming the gallery architecture into a platform or frame for her work.
Many of her wall-mounted photographs, for example, appear to be views through windows in the gallery, which has none other than in the front. Even more uncanny in this regard are the photographs that actually were shot through windows, a way of seeing that Neff has explored for some time. You don't really believe you're seeing a window view of the ocean and sky at dusk as shot through the window of a plane, or an image of a mountainous emerald landscape photographed from a moving vehicle - and certainly not anywhere close to the Walnut Street gallery - but it's easy to feel that rush of being momentarily transported to a place of powerful, quiet beauty.
Neff's new work plays with perception throughout this show.
Framed life-size color photographs of single leaves of various tropical plants displayed together make them look like they're the actual foliage, cut just minutes ago. A large, solitary white horse, shot from behind, its head turned back to face Neff and her camera, also seems so alive you expect to hear a disaffected snort at this invasion of privacy, but its soulful brown eyes simultaneously suggest an invitation to be followed.
The photos that incorporate a mirrored disc or Mylar film, both of which Neff took with her to Costa Rica, do not immediately reveal her methods and allow the works an ineffable strangeness. (They also heighten the fecundity of their rain forest settings). Her photographs of landscapes as reflected on Mylar, which distorts them, reminded me of the scraped and blurred oil-paint surfaces of Gerhard Richter's abstract paintings.
There are some humorous touches here, too, not least Neff's life-size photos of leaves printed on latex-impregnated paper cut to the exact contours of their subjects. An especially large one, perhaps from a banana tree, reclines in an Eames chair in the back gallery, as though viewing the rest of the show.
A veteran of four group shows at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, Martha Groome now has her first solo show there. Having seen only several paintings of hers since 2008, I had not been convinced her crisp compositions of rectangles would sufficiently set her apart from the gallery's other geometric abstractionists. But a space full of Groome's paintings is a revelation. They're stark, unflinching, and also manage to seem born of chance. Seen together, their individual compositional quirks now seem uncontrived and provisional.
In a statement, the Portland, Maine, artist writes, "My painting is made to be simple easy direct, a sensation of presence with no instructions." Her influences, she says, include "anything in the world outside myself - whale songs, celestial events, space in a room, the heavy presence of rocks in the woods down the road, the paintings of Matisse, the piles of dirt and mirrors of Robert Smithson, the choosings and placings of Ufan Lee."
All that makes itself apparent subtly; Groome's palette of blues, blacks, grays, white, and tans suggests a sensibility formed by her coastal New England surroundings.
Want to time-travel back to the 1970s? Anna Betbeze's mostly monumental, slightly alarming wall hangings will take you there without any further enhancements.
Each is a sewn-together patchwork of dirty Greek Flokati rugs, scraps of rabbit fur that look foraged from a pimp's wardrobe, leather, and velvet. What's not already distressed she distresses further by staining and burning.
And yet there's something so magnificently unsavory and ambitious about this work it lingers in your mind for days.
I'm thinking Tracey Emin, but also Shaft, macramé, Peter Frampton, Patty Hearst.
The comet Kohoutek!