In 1861, photographer Felix Nadar (1820-1910) captivated Parisians by giving them their first glimpse of the city’s mysterious catacombs and dark sewers. In Excavating the Underground, Jennifer Little and Mike Osborne, explore subterranean urban spaces in much the same spirit.
Little, who teaches photography at UOP, created her Barriers and Conduits series between 2005 and 2008, focusing on streams trickling beneath freeway overpasses in Austin and Memphis. Her works seem to be primarily about the poetic visual effects that can be wrung from making pictures in such spaces. Osborne’s photographs, from 2009, of silent passengers waiting on the platforms of a German subway line, appear to be portraits of people in transit, bur are more about the relationship between architecture and painting.
The idea of travel runs through both artists’ work, and to emphasize that fact, Little installs a video of cars driving across bridges and overpasses. Though the feeling of transit doesn’t stick while viewing the entire show, the random rumblings of cars and sirens remind us of what’s actually going on above-ground.
Below ground, Little photographs her works from inside culverts, pointing her lens towards the outside, as if emerging from the tunnel’s depths. While keeping the bright light, green vegetation, and grey cement walls of the urban landscape visible just beyond the edge of the culvert, Little aims her camera to cut off the sky from view. What she captures in the tunnels’ dark pools of water are near-perfect reflections of the things that cannot be seen clearly from inside, namely trees, sky and clouds.
While reflections can be a shop-worn cliché, Little’s photos serve up interesting conjunctions between the natural and the manmade, the heavens and the underground, rigidness and fluidity, clarity and the unknown – all of which are symmetrically interlocked, with the edges of the culverts and their watery reflections literally framing the interactions, like the dualities embodied in the yin/yang symbol.
With the video reminder of the fast-paced of the world above, the dank world underneath an overpass becomes an oasis of calm. The cement structures, sometimes crumbing or covered in stains, carry their own kind of history. Neither beautiful nor ugly, the structures seem both opposite to and integrated with the natural elements. In this original portrait of two American cities, nature and the invasive urban form come finally to a compromise.
In Mike Osborne’s photographs, man-made forms – subway platforms, hallways, windows artificial light – hold sway. His main interest is in solid, rigid lines and forms. Photographed during a residency in Stuttgart, each piece captures a certain type of individual (i.e. a stewardess, a punked-up teenager, a businessman, suburban wife) framed against the glaring background of the stations’ 1970s architecture. (Apparently the colors — yellow, blue, red – represent a separate stop on the Stadtbahn.)
Though Osborne’s later works explore such cities as Houston and Beijing with specificity, the fact that these pictures were made in the Stadtbahn serves as little more than a fact for curious viewers. His photographs center less on people than on the backgrounds they inhabit. Thus, his skill with urban forms lies in transforming the tacky architecture into something aesthetic. As in an Ellsworth Kelly color-field painting, it’s the colors that give Osborne’s photos their powerful presence.
Take Man from Gerlingen where a handsomely dressed man leans against one station’s solid-blue walls, smoking a cigarette. His character is defined by the overwhelming blue light emanating from the background. In Aufzug, shot from a low angle, a long yellow hallway leads to a figure standing behind the graffitied blue doors of an elevator. Stand close and the yellow swallows you whole.
“Immersive” is a word that has lately been overused. But this show is one case where it actually applies.
Excavating the Underground @ Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery through August 8, 2010.
Cover: Jennifer Little