Photography Shows: Tom Chambers and Eric William Carroll

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Saturday May 19, 2012
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Once in a while one stumbles upon an artist whose psychological bent intersects perfectly with one's own, and for me that would be photographer Tom Chambers. Since I happened onto the Modernbook Gallery and had a chance encounter with Chambers' work, I can't get his hyperreal images out of my mind. They're on display in a retrospective drawn from six series he created between 1997 and the present; selections have also been assembled in a book titled Entropic Kingdom.

A Vietnam vet and trained graphic designer with a love of travel, music and literature, Chambers shoots in digital, producing luminous, color-saturated photomontages, a form with origins in Dada. These composites of multiple photographs melded into a single stirring image conjure the golden light of Renaissance art, Andrew Wyeth's pastoral landscapes, Old Europe, magical realism and Grimm's Fairy Tales, where non-conforming, tousled-haired, little bad girls dressed in flowing pastel crinolines disappear into the woods - kidnapped, eaten or bewitched - never to return. This is not necessarily what Chambers intends, but it's one of the places he can transport you, depending on your frame of mind; his pictures are Rorschach tests for the psyche. Through the artist's magic portal one ventures into the mysterious, enchanted, untamed world of children and animals, whose interactions he observed first-hand growing up on a Pennsylvania farm with grandparents who were both farmers and professional artists. Now Chambers ploughs the fields of his imagination and nature untethered.

In his feral imagery, there are intimations of the apocalyptic and the sublime: a pack of wild black dogs charge through a russet field; a loose white horse gallops down a shaded cobblestone street in a deserted ancient town; young twin girls, standing on a dirt road beneath a stone archway in matching white dresses, wear hoops of fire on their hips; and a girl, kneeling on the leaf-covered ground, embraces a stag with a full rack of antlers. In "Winged Migration," Chambers aims his camera upward, catching a fleeing barefoot girl as a flock of birds darkens skies overhead. A young girl clad in confirmation white sits bareback on a magnificent Marwari stallion fording a stream; the equine breed's proud lineage reaches back to 12th century India, when they were considered divine beings. In "Prom Gown #2," a young girl holding the edges of her flowing orange skirt stands barefoot on the back of a slate gray mare, while in "Prom Gown #3," a young woman is laid out several feet off the ground on a bare structure of tall sticks like a sacrifice to the gods, as ominous clouds gather on the horizon.

Moved by the metaphysical, transformational properties of Tuscan light during a visit to Italy, Chambers created his newest series, Illuminations. In the dazzling "Lucca Luna," a girl with pigtails and iridescent lavender party dress leans forward holding a bow and arrow - a female cupid - and a dramatic sunset drenches the stucco buildings of the Italian village square seen in the distance, in peach and violet tones.

Assembling the sacred, the beautiful, the dangerous and the sexual, Chambers provides enough reality to anchor us in the known world, and a sufficient amount of the surreal to carry us far from home and trip the light fantastic. Put away the pocket Freud and drift away on a dream.

Through June 2 at Modernbook gallery. Info:

Natural light

Climb a steep flight of stairs to the second floor of an otherwise nondescript downtown building and you'll discover San Francisco Camerawork's new home: an urban loft space with open galleries flooded with natural light, freshly painted white walls, refinished wood floors, high ceilings and a bank of large windows overlooking the carnival on Market Street below. Founded 38 years ago by a group of local artists and devoted to supporting emerging local photographers, this nonprofit contemporary photography center, which sponsors classes, discussion forums, artist residencies, publications and exhibitions, celebrated the official public opening of their spiffy 4,000 sq. ft., architecturally designed space in the Mid-Market area last Friday.

Located near 6th St. next to the Luggage Store gallery, they're down the street from the old Strand Theater, recently purchased by American Conservatory Theater. ACT is one of several arts organizations, along with Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, who've set up shop in this dodgy transitional neighborhood the city hopes will evolve into a revitalized arts district. Whether this grand vision materializes is anyone's guess. But it's easily accessible by public transportation, and rents are lower here than in other parts of San Francisco, factors that contributed to Camerawork's decision to relocate from their previous location on Mission St.

Coinciding with the opening, they're presenting an exhibition by the 2012 winner of the Baum Award, Eric William Carroll, a San Francisco-based artist who has made the photographic process the subject of much of his work. Emphasizing his explorations of the medium's history and his manipulation of its technological properties, the show features a sampling of Carroll's images, like a large format, bluish-fogged negative that recalls color field painting but is actually a souvenir from a sheet of film accidentally exposed to light during a shoot; and a reproduction of a drawing by Henry Fox Talbot, a British inventor who pioneered the calotype, a forerunner of photogravure. (Talbot went on to invent the first photographic negative in 1835.) The exhibition includes This Darkroom's Gone to Heaven, an installation that recreates a functional communal darkroom inside the gallery. It's part of Carroll's ongoing deconstruction of the form and his meditation on the evanescent, fast-changing nature of photography in the digital age. Entering through a black revolving door, one finds X-ray-like images covering stripped walls, empty spots where it looks as though equipment has been removed, and illumination provided by "safelights." The overall effect evokes a once-thriving space that has been abandoned. Might old-school photography meet a similar fate?

Through June 30. Info:

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