Carol Eisenberg, “Dangerous Beauty” Photo courtesy of the artist/Cove Street Arts

As I took in Carol Eisenberg’s “Dangerous Beauty” series of photographic works at “Abstract Nature,” a show curated by Bruce Brown at Cove Street Arts (through Aug. 24), I remembered an article I read by New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman in 2001. The occasion was an exhibition of black-and-white images by the Brazilian social documentarian and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. His subject matter has always been a slice of humanity that, Kimmelman pointed out, many of us have spent a lot of time trying “not to notice” – refugees, famine victims, homeless families, boat people and other deeply suffering populations.

Salgado had been criticized for exploiting his subjects by making pictures so elegantly composed and breathlessly beautiful that they glorified these peoples’ suffering. Wrote Kimmelman: “… what causes any image to stick in the mind aside from its shock content, whose impact tends to be brief, are qualities like pictorial integrity and compositional originality, which are fancy terms for beauty.” Though he conceded there were philosophical problems with this approach, he seemed to conclude that if an image’s beauty can stir compassion and conscience in the viewer, it has done what good photojournalism, and good art, should do.

Eisenberg’s subject is the coronavirus, whose colors and shapes she finds aesthetically startling, probably made even more so because of their deadly nature. After reading an article on how past pandemics led to groundbreaking advancements like waste disposal systems and indoor plumbing, she began manipulating downloaded coronavirus images and sprinkling them through lush, digitally created imaginary landscapes. “My intention was to make visible that which is invisible and frightening, thereby rendering it less disturbing, and to suggest something positive might emerge from the current pandemic,” reads her statement.

These ravishing photos, which are developed on metallic photo rag paper in large format (38 inches by 50 5/8 inches), look like the teaming life you might observe through a microscope trained on a petri dish of swamp water – mysterious, edgily alive and utterly fascinating. Eisenberg collages together dragonfly wings, lily pads, plant forms and other elements that overlap and partially recede into the picture plane, all mixing – sometimes seeming to dance – with the virus. The idea that she has transformed something terrifying and morbid into something voluptuous and wondrous triggered the memory of Kimmelman’s review, called, paradoxically, “Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful?” Eisenberg seems to argue that anything can be beautiful depending on your point of view. Which is, of course, a fundamental truth of art. If we can see the virus without its implication – merely as a interesting, vividly colored form – there is beauty in it, too.

John Woodruff, “Division” Photo courtesy of the artist/Cove Street Arts

The abstraction of nature takes many forms in this show. The work of John Woodruff is about light – specifically sunlight and moonlight. The artist trains his camera on the sun and moon at different times of day and night and produces many prints of these images. Then, drawing from his enthrallment with the fluid shapes of amoebae, he cuts them out, tracing a curvy line around them with his scissors. These he groups on layers of glass separated by blocks, then lights them from different angles to create dramatic shadows. Finally, he photographs the composition from above, looking down through the layers of glass.

The final product looks like a collaged image that emits many points of sunlight or moonlight. Their colors – yellows, blues or deep gray-blacks – are determined by the hour at which Woodruff shoots these bodies, and how closely they are focused on the chromosphere and corona. Depending on the way he assembles the images, they can call to mind other things, such as hydrangeas (“Division”), roses (“I Have a Message to Give You”) or, even, the coronavirus (“Bloom”). Personally, those that feature a kind of flash of starlight (“Origin” and “Do You Ever Dream?”) have a restraint and contrast to them that appear both elegant and magical.

Jane Yudelman, “Frozen Light #45” Photo courtesy of the artist/Cove Street Arts

On opposite sides of the gallery, Brown has placed works by Jane Yudelman. On one wall are her “Frozen Light” works, luminous, painterly photographs of frozen crevices and tidal pools as seen through sheets of ice. The crystallized surface of the ice softens the shapes and colors underneath, making them feel like impressionist paintings. On the other wall are her “Flow” works; essentially the same concept, except that here the ice has melted, and the water is fluid, in perpetual movement and reflective. What is most surprising is the spectrum of color under the liquid layer. I am not sure whether she enhances the prismatic array by adding pieces of colored glass or other objects. But both bodies of work are entrancing in different ways: “Frozen Light” seems dreamy and a little melancholy, while “Flow” is energetic and sumptuous.

There is more conventional work that simply abstracts nature by getting so up close and personal to it that the image starts to indicate something else. For instance, the titles of CE Morris’s photos remove any mystery about what they are, which, in any event, is clear most of the time. But the camera’s proximity to the surface of, for instance, “Carrabassett Ripples” imbues the patterns of the water with associations to reptile skins. “Popham Wall” can appear as a desert’s topography viewed from a plane, “Rock #39” as some prehistoric petroglyph.

CE Morse, “Carrabassett Ripples” Photo courtesy of the artist/Cove Street Arts

Carl Austin Hyatt, “Solaris 3” Photo courtesy of the artist/Cove Street Arts

Something similar, but in black and white, happens with Carl Austin Hyatt’s “Cliff Face” and “Etched Rock,” which have the formal compositional qualities of an Ansel Adams photograph. More interesting are his “Solaris” images, traditional silver gelatin prints, but where the sun’s light has confused the lens, appearing multiple times and of different densities in one image.

The question in the headline of Kimmelman’s review stuck with me throughout the show, which might seem odd to some. But it became apparent in many of the works how beauty, danger and suffering all co-exist within the same frame. This is certainly true of Eisenberg’s work. But as dreamy as Yudelman’s “Frozen Light” photos are, they also summon the feeling of sharp, lacerating cold. Woodruff’s and Hyatt’s “Solaris” pieces reminded me of the disorienting, blinding, painful effect of looking straight into the sun. Morse’s “Rock” images and his “Ayotte’s Lichen” might evoke rust and decay, his “Bucksport Ripple #78” an environmentally disastrous oil slick. Whether or not it was intended, Brown’s show walks a fine line between the beauty of nature and her cruelty. In this tumultuous time on the planet, there seem to be few other existential questions more important to contemplate than this one.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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