Mother Nature Fools Us in Southwest School Photography Exhibit

A gloomy gray winter’s day is the perfect accompaniment for eco-artists Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s “Selections from the Counterpoint Series,” but don’t expect their rather bleak meditation on the interaction of humans, technology and nature to cheer you up. This grimly beautiful show of surreal, large-scale photographic images in somber, muted colors is suffused with an aching longing for a rejuvenated world.

In Winter Arm, a man peers down at scraggly, leafless, miniature trees sprouting on his forearm between his elbow and wrist. Bees buzz around pieces of honeycomb resting on his Spring Arm, while spindly Black-Eyed Susans and Tiger Lilies bloom on his Summer Arm, propped up with weird metal braces. Is nature on life-support?

Perhaps the clearest expression of the team’s environmental concerns, and the most shocking image in the exhibit, is Wound, a bare tree limb wrapped with a bandage, dripping blood into a drinking glass suspended from the branch by a piece of wire.

The ParkeHarrisons “construct” their images, often using themselves as models and utilizing painting, sculpture, theater and mime to stage scenes. During the 1990s, they constructed 64 images for The Architect’s Brother, which features Robert as an “Everyman” trying to save the depleted planet by himself, a Sisyphean task of cleaning up centuries of environmental ruin that’s foolish and far too late, but hinting at an all-too plausible future.

In The Architect’s Brother, the ParkeHarrisons worked with old-fashioned sepia-toned photographs, eschewing digital trickery, but when artifacts of the old, chemical film culture became harder to find, they embraced color and some computer manipulation of their images for the Counterpoint series. Shana has joined Robert’s Everyman as a model in these poetic images with colors inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the muted palette of the early 20th-century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi.

While the ParkeHarrisons employ color and transparency film, scanning, limited Photoshop manipulation and Epson printing, they also hand paint with Golden acrylics on the photographic surface in careful layers, building up rich textures and adding depth. In The Alchemist, for example, the dark blue wall provides a dramatic background for Robert pulling at a tangle of wires like some failed wizard trying to re-energize the spiritual realm.

Overflow is hauntingly beautiful, but the photograph appears to have been taken in the aftermath of a tremendous flood, which has filled a house with water. You can see a man’s hand and arm in the debris-cluttered water soaking the house’s interior while through the window one small cloud floats over a flood-swollen river reminiscent of a John Constable painting.

Rootwall bears testimony to nature’s determination to survive. High up on a stain-splattered wall, a plant’s root ball sticks out with long tendrils trailing down to the floor sprouting small green leaves and red flowers. Bright blue liquid leaks from an overhead pipe in this scene that suggests an abandoned factory being reclaimed by the plant kingdom during the rusting of the Industrial Age.

Harbinger, which looks like a man has just committed suicide by hanging himself, may be an apt metaphor for our future if we can’t learn to live without needlessly trashing the environment. But rather than browbeating people with horrific images of degraded nature, the ParkeHarrisons take a more lyrical, subtle approach to encourage viewers to ponder the dire consequences of our generally abusive relationship with the natural world.

Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison: Selections from the Counterpoint Series

9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 11am-4pm Sun
Southwest School of Art
Russell Hill Rogers Galleries, Navarro Campus
300 Augusta
(210) 224-1848
Through Feb 2


Artists Lecture: “Influences, Inspiration: The Artistic Path”

6:30pm Tue, Jan 21
Trinity University
Ruth Taylor Recital Hall
One Trinity Place
(210) 999-7681

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