by Mark Van Proyen
The history of photography has always been beset with a kind of schizophrenia. On one hand, it is a chronicle of technological developments moving in the direction of informational precision, while on the other, it is a history of poetic vision. Sometimes, both histories combine in an artist’s work. Rarer still are the moments when an artist purposefully plays each against the other to capture and the hidden dialog between them. John Priola’s exhibition of ten recent photographic prints, Natural Light/ Symbiosis, slyly exemplifies such moments, eliciting slow and careful looking.
This exhibition of archival pigment prints (all 2022) derives from high-resolution digital files, only slightly embellished by image editing software. They divide into three thematic groupings. One features clusters of leafless trees set against almost white backgrounds intimating a burst of early afternoon illumination, captured from an upward-looking angle, making the trees loom tall in relation to the viewer’s cone of vision. Perched high in the barren tree branches are clusters of symbiotic foliage indicated by the works’ titles to be mistletoe, appearing as nests fashioned by highly motivated arboreal critters. In Mistletoe, for example we see knots of teeming foliage crawling up into the branches of a barren tree, looking like an obese python covered in perfervid vegetation. Sebastopol Mistletoe, a diptych, features several bare trees hosting several smaller examples of such clusters, while the largest work in the exhibition, Windsor Mistletoe, is an interconnected trio of similarly themed images.
Priola’s recent images are not particularly large by the standards of contemporary photography, nor are they preciously small. They shy away from flamboyance, their crystalline hyper-focus evoking the brittle dissections of Karl Blossfeldt’s nature studies from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. To look closely at these images is to marvel at the subtle, albeit overwhelming, level of informational detail they reveal about the surfaces described therein, making them comparable to the work of f64 photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Priola’s images go so far in the direction of “straight photography” that they become surreal by default, echoing a statement made by Susan Sontag saying that Surrealist photography was redundant because photography was already intrinsically surreal before anyone tried to label it as such.
Each image places the viewer in the same uncertain position of the photographer/protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, who discovers that the closer he examines a photograph of a murder scene, the less sure he is about what he sees in it. This attribute of dissolving certitude plays out in a quartet of images featuring grey pine tree trunks frontally illuminated against inky black backgrounds, intimating a cold winter night. Each is centrally located in a 26 x 20-inch picture space, unadorned by branches but still rich in the visible detail of the surfaces revealed to the camera’s gaze. In fact, Priola’s pictures reveal so much detail that some viewers might start seeing things that are not there, like areas of phosphorescent nematodes enlivening the desiccated surfaces of the trees. Therein lies the underlying drama of Priola’s new photographs: They reveal the sharp and subtle juxtaposition of dormant and living forms, echoing the split history of photography understood as one of technically codified verisimilitude and another of elegiac evocation.
Still-life works represent another subgroup in this exhibition, these literalizing the Latin idea of Nature Mort. Orange Lichen gets its name from the color of the flat background upon which we see a sprig of lichen presented like a biological specimen. It does not seem to be fully alive, nor does it seem to be fully and finally dead. It seems frozen between those states, its vitality yet to be stolen by the passage of time or the camera’s scrutiny. Such scrutiny implicates the beholder as an impassive witness who helplessly stands back because there is nothing else to do other than savor the passing moment.
John Priola: “Natural Light/ Symbiosis” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through February 25, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.