Monday, March 10, 2014
By Daniel Kany
I was particularly looking forward to Luc Demers’ solo show after his strong presence in the 2012 CMCA Biennial. Demers was one of the seven artists invited to that biennial (along with 10 who were selected via a jury process; the CMCA’s pronouncements were clear about this), and he was the first I mentioned in my review of that particularly well-balanced show.
Courtesy of the artist
“MOONLIT” – PHOTOGRAPHS BY LUC DEMERS
WHERE: Rose Contemporary, 492 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: Through Dec. 21
HOURS: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and by appointment
INFO: 780-0700; rosecontemporary.com
Demers’ work at CMCA walked a tightrope between two different ways of seeing it. “Back Door” featured a view through a darkened domestic hallway toward an outer door with three windows and a sliver of a lighted room visible to one side. The scene implied either a narrative or a thoughtfully paused moment of awareness (think Henry James). Imagine a person brought to a standstill in the dark hallway because, undetected by others in the house, he overheard something of interest, or perhaps a person realizing he momentarily lost his bodily awareness while taking in the abstract visual structure behind his experience of that space (you don’t touch the windows in the door as you pass by them, but they are your guide – your invisible anchor in a place where vision cannot reveal your path).
What made Demers’ pieces particularly compelling was that they could be read either way – as narratives or paused moments of self-awareness.
As a narrative, Demers achieves a psychological density analogous to a domestic interior version of Linden Frederick’s painted night scenes or Andre Debus’ short story (or even the film version of) “In the Bedroom.“
While, in writing, the paused-moment approach might sound over-determined and unlikely, it makes sense in front of Demers’ body-scaled photographs because it answers the question, “Why did he take this photograph?” It also accounts for the effect of stopping in space to take a photograph. Moreover, the extraordinary technical quality (high focus, long exposure, large lens, etc.) makes it clear this was no selfie in the dark: We can deduct a tripod and a professional camera that has more than one button.
Demers’ new photos at Rose Contemporary tack away from narrative possibility and push in the direction of that frozen moment of self-awareness.
“Moonlit” lives up to its name: The 15 photos are all long-exposure (yes, actual film) interior shots lit by nothing but moonlight and featuring fixed nighttime images of a window sash, a shaded window, a curtain and so on. The images are unusually minimal for photography.
Because the exposures are so long (up to seven hours each) the indirect light is a lusciously soft midnight blue floating within uncannily rich blacks.
Demers mounts and frames the images beautifully, and because he prints with archival pigments and mounts the rag paper on aluminum, he is not compelled to put glass over these works (which, because they are so subtle, would require very expensive museum glass; moreover, pigment prints ostensibly will not fade like images made from photosensitive emulsions).
Because of their technical complexity and exposure length, the “Moonlit” series is understandably small. Demers’ first image is ghostly and gorgeous. It features a sheer curtain centered iconically and rendered in whispers of the softest blue on a broad ground of Demers’ luscious photographic black. “Moonlit #2” might sound more prosaic – it features the blue moonlight rendering a perfect rectangle around a window shade (think early James Turrell) – but it ties itself to the logic of minimal painting like Ad Reinhart or Mark Rothko with brilliantly understated elegance. It is on this point that “Moonlit” turns. If you are a fan of that kind of painting and its here-and-now mystical (or phenomenological) viewer experience, then this could be a turning-point photography show for you. If you aren’t comfortable with that kind of (minimal to the point of liminal) painting, “Moonlit” might be just enough to take you there. After all, Demers’ images are the things we see at night while we disengage our minds from our bodies as we (try to) sleep: light leaking through the edge of a shade onto a wall, the white trim of a window sill, windows with silhouetted forms before them and so on.
And because these are photographs, they are more compelling than similar-appearing paintings; they take wing using things we actually see rather than interior vision.
The artist who best explores these issues of vision is Alex Katz. The Colby College Museum of Art’s giant canvas “East” comprises 20 feet of black space only punctuated by dark blue sky seen through the trees in the upper right. While this achieves an almost complete dematerialization of the viewer’s body (presumably in the nighttime forest), Katz’s “Fog” (a woodcut on the scale of Demers’ photos) orients the body to architecture by three lighted rectangular windows (remember Demers’ piece at CMCA) seen from without under a hint of sky held to the upper edge of the image by the solid silhouette of the Maine woods.
Demers and Katz both encounter the edge were vision is either removed from the viewer’s body or attaches sight to the viewer’s body. But Demers’ forays into this subject are both more elegant and more successful (but let’s not forget that Katz blazed this brilliant path).
There have been a number of excellent photography shows in Maine this year (most notably the exhibitions associated with the Maine Media Workshops + College), and “Moonlit” is absolutely one of the best.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:
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