The traditional subjects for a work of visual art used to be history, portrait, scenes of everyday life, landscape, animals, still life. In that order.
That’s what once was called the Hierarchy of Genres, and nearly every art exhibit, up through the 19th century, had a smattering of each.
How long has it been since we’ve seen a history painting? An exhibit of only portraits, scenes of everyday life or animals? If it weren’t for places like Summit Artspace, the answer would be a long, long time. Despite that organization’s devotion to showing us a bit of everything, what we mostly see today are landscapes and still lifes.
Even if we’re talking about the newer art forms, such as conceptual art, installation art, Earth art, performance, collage or assemblage, most of them can be readily fitted into the landscape or still life genre. Those two subjects are somewhat flexible and open to interpretation in a way that simply cannot be applied to the more exacting genres.
There are only so many ideas one can impose upon a portrait of someone famous, and only so many ways to look at a scene from everyday life or history books. But with still lifes and landscapes (most particularly the latter) so much can be read into the images, and artists know that most people can easily relate to them.
So whether they’re arriving at their subject through photography, painting, collage, manipulating the land or creating a gallery installation, what many artists today end up creating is yet another take on these two genres.
In either genre, an artist can, with some forethought, address the eternal questions of life and death, the ethical questions of environmentalism and pollution, the economic questions of greed and corruption, the political questions of freedom and control and the sociological questions of just about anything.
These are among the many reasons why the Akron Art Museum currently has three landscape exhibits on view. Another reason is that the main exhibit of a hugely popular art style, Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism, simply calls out for support exhibits in like genre.
Through March 4 the museum is exhibiting SuperNatural: Landscapes by Bruce Checefsky & Barry Underwood and through Feb. 19 Michelle Droll: Landslide/Between a Rock and a Place. The first is a photography exhibit, the second an installation. There is no hierarchy of preference between these two shows; we will consider the photography exhibit first.
Both Checefsky and Underwood work at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Checefsky is the director of the Weinberger Gallery and Underwood is an assistant professor and head of photography.
Each artist uses the effects of atmospheric light in addition to outside light sources to create ephemeral moments in the landscape that give viewers the sense of discovering hidden mysteries, altering our perception of the landscape to reveal worlds within worlds.
Checefsky uses a flatbed scanner as a field camera in his garden. Rather than placing the object of his attention on the scanner’s glass surface, he uses the scanner like a camera and aims it toward the object.
The scanner is quite close to the objects it captures, so close that often the scanner mechanism can snag a flower petal or a leaf and create an unintended object of beauty as it drags the snagged object across its field of view, creating a distortion of the image often even more beautiful than the actual subject.
He also moves the scanner around the object he is capturing so that the images tend to contain an element of movement, which defies the photographic canon of a moment frozen in time.
Checefsky believes that the image looks less photographic and truer to the way we actually see things.
“He takes the scans outside in his garden,” Ellen Rudolph, Akron Art Museum curator of exhibitions, explained. “He actually removes the glass and puts it in front of the flower he wants to shoot.
“So with each photograph you have an image that’s actually 45 minutes worth of image, because that’s how long it takes the scanner head to move across the bed.” Because the scanner is so close to the object, the foreground is in crisp focus, while the background is blurred beyond recognition.
Photographing only during the “magic hours” of early morning and late afternoon, Checefsky’s images have an otherworldly quality closely related to surrealism.
Underwood conceives of his images as abstract drawings that he imposes on the landscape, according to Rudolph.
When viewers look at Underwood’s images, they see photographed landscapes that have been altered with the use of some sort of portable light source — in this case, glow sticks.
The effect is to create another form of surrealism and to prompt viewers into stopping long enough to give his images a closer look in order to figure out how he did it.
Underwood’s work is a mixture of studio and performing art. His images are staged with temporary light installations in the landscape. He leaves his camera lens open for a long time, often for hours, so that, even though he photographs at night, ambient light accumulates on the film and illuminates the scene with a soft, otherworldly glow.
“He starts with an abstract drawing, which he transposes onto sculpture,” Rudolph explained. “He has background in performance art and he’s also interested in painting and sculpture. He shoots with 35 mm film, which he then uploads at very high resolutions into a computer.
“He’s an interesting guy and just starting to get a lot of notice for what he’s doing,” she added. “He won the 2011 Cleveland Arts Prize for Visual Arts, Mid Career. People find his work captivating and mysterious.”
The museum decided to call the exhibit SuperNatural “because both of the artists’ work is either hyper-real (Underwood) or super-real (Checefsky). You’re not sure if you’re coming upon an atmospheric anomaly or a supernatural event or something that’s simply been Photoshopped,” Rudolph said.
“That’s the exciting revelation: Their works are staged, yet they produce images of a real place, a real time and a real thing. It’s a collaboration with nature.”
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.