Planet Vortex Sutra

Cristina Benavides' Pearblossom Highway, 24 x 17 inches, piezo pigment print, 2003. (Courtesy photo)
Observing 'The Unobserved' at Gallery Sol y Sombra

Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Witchita Vortex Sutra," part of the epic The Fall of America, illuminates the spirit behind curator Chuck Ramirez' vision for the unobserved, on view at Sol y Sombra through October 19: "... lights feed man and machine,/Kansas Electric Substation aluminum robot/signals through thin antennae towers/above the empty football field/at Sunday dusk/to a solitary derrick that pumps oil from the unconscious ..."

Ramirez has brought together three artists of varying backgrounds: Dan Borris, a successful commercial and fine art photographer, Neil Mauer, who teaches photography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Cristina Benavides, who appears here in her first public show.

Benavides' work best illustrates the exhibit's theme, which is the unintentional landscape created by human activity. Her color prints capture squandered space, neither left in its natural state nor put to practical or aesthetic use. They are scenes of accidental or nostalgic beauty, made poignant by the viewer's projection of a prior, meaningful occupancy. In Pearblossom Highway, the distant horizon, studded with an endless line of electrical scaffolding towers, is as important to the narrative as the abandoned '30s sedan and vacant asphalt lot that occupy the foreground.

Benavides' photos have an ersatz quality that fits her theme. In contrast, Borris' images of empty soccer fields in Mexico and South America reflect a professional, stylized approach. The subject matter is appealing, whether the field is almost overtaken by the surrounding jungle, hidden away in a cornfield, or scraped out of hard mountainous terrain, and any one of the images would be striking by itself. Displayed as a series, Borris' images make a picayune catalog: far better than asking the collection stand for a reaffirmation of the human spirit via universal love for games involving goal posts. The fields just seem empty, but the exposures capture the entrancing details of light on foliage and the delicate variations in cloud cover - and these are the elements that give the images gravity.

Mauer's large-scale, black-and-white images vary widely in impact. In this show, Mauer is more subject-dependent than either Benavides or Borris, who each benefit from the cohesive sense of the artist's eye that develops as you study their prints. Two images of South American houses, in particular, are merely documentary, without conveying something deeper or more interesting. The strongest piece, Straight Up, viscerally captures the abrupt, brutal barriers we create for ourselves, though the effect weakened by the addition of a thin black line framing the light portions of the image.

Through October 19
By appointment
Gallery Sol y Sombra
311 Howard
Mauer's inkjet prints are impressive in their detail, though they don't seem to capture the subtle variations in the ephemeral grays as well as the archival pigment giclee prints of the soccer fields. Benavides' piezo pigment prints, the only color images in the show, startlingly mimic the hues of the southwest, especially at dusk, and the blues and greens are sublime. The reds and oranges, though, glow artificially, which makes some of the images more painterly and contrived.

To paraphrase The New Republic's film critic, Stanley Kauffman, Benavides' work comes close to being post-postmodern, the absence of everything we might expect from a traditional photographic exhibit or its foil, in which every image could be replaced by a different image. Yet something still holds here, and Borris' and Benavides' empty spaces are like Ginsberg's, full of desolation, and promising the potential for rebirth. •

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