Arts art exhibit review

‘At Sea’ exhibits intriguing photography

Panopticon Gallery exhibits photography collection titled ‘At Sea’

At Sea

Panopticon Gallery

Sept. 6 – Oct. 31, 2017

The first thing you’ll notice about Panopticon Gallery’s newest photography exhibition “At Sea” is that none of the artworks on display show anyone at sea.

Where there are human figures, they are beside the sea — sitting, standing, working — not navigating the open waters. Rather than mastering the seven seas, they remain at the ocean’s edge, fragile and unsure.

In the show’s press release, Panopticon states that the exhibition is about the “impalpable, infinite, and unpredictable” nature of the sea, which has inspired artists “since time immemorial.” But the works are also united by a juxtaposition of this concept with our finite and fleeting civilization. Each artist, in his or her own way, contrasts the image of a vast and eternal ocean with the ephemerality of our own existence.

Amy Friend paints small, barely distinguishable human figures swimming in an vast and nondescript ocean. Sea fades into sky, creating nearly uniform fields of blue interrupted only by the small forms of swimmers. Large in scale, her images engulf the viewer and make their human subjects appear inconsequential. Unstable in its Essence, with tiny swimmers positioned precariously at its edge, reminds us of how small we really are in comparison to nature. It inspires a Romantic sense of wonder — that feeling of awe and delight at something that, if was not just an image, would be terrifying.

In self-portraits taken on the coast of her native Iceland, Agnieszka Sosnowska also explores themes of uncertainty and unpredictability. In one she works pulling nets, beautifully framed by large piles on either side. As someone with a special admiration for farming, fishing and other labors of the land (and sea), I may have a bias for such images. Here, traditional physical labors can be interpreted as a manifestation of our self-determination; it is also, by virtue, the unpredictability of environmental conditions, where our contingency is most apparent.

Diana Bloomfield’s photographs of a woman wading in a river are imbued with a meditative, spiritual quality. The water in these images feels purifying and almost sacred; it seems to facilitate a moment of transcendence through nature. This impression is heightened by a strong sense of atmosphere, attributable partly to Bloomfield’s use of the 19th century technique of gum bichromate printing.

Most of the artists have chosen to work with historical photographic processes. (Jefferson Hayman has even hand crafted the wooden frames in which his photographs of ocean horizons are displayed.) The self-evident materiality of these works, and their implicit manmade-ness, serve as a constant reminder of mortality.  But these memento mori are not distressing. They arise not from fatalism, but an acceptance of the natural order.