Sunday, December 28, 2014

Portland Phoenix: Tonee Harbert at PhoPa

This, Our Curious World
Tonee Harbert casts an appreciative eye around

The dictionary on my desk defines curiosity as “the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness” but also as “a curious, rare, or novel thing” and “a strange, curious, or interesting quality.” In its archaic use the word described “carefulness; fastidiousness.” PhoPa Gallery’s “Tonee Harbert: Curiosities” encompasses all those definitions in the images’ driving force, subject, character, and even execution.

Exhibited are sixteen black-and-white archival pigment prints of scanned film negatives that were taken with plastic Diana cameras. The resulting images are slightly distorted, lack sharp focus, and feature strong graininess and evenness of tone. Like a reductive filter, this visual quality acts as a distancing device, highlighting its artifice, spelling it out: you are looking at an image, not the thing itself. This is especially true for the composite dip- and triptychs in which the individual images are conspicuously outlined and not aligned. The three sections comprising Untitled_(Bridge triptych) roughly depict the iron railroad bridge itself and the banks of the river it crosses, which serves as a clear indicator of the meaningfulness and deliberateness of Harbert’s style. Elimination of details make it clear that these images are not after verisimilitude but basic forms and atmospheric moods—the expressive potential of essentials. Even an image of a flying dove appears inexplicably still and quiet; water, sky, and fog become just as solid as the rocks they envelop.

Harbert’s is a careful and consistent vision. His curiosities lie not in extraordinariness or sensational potential. They aren’t tinged by irony either. Instead, they are subtle and evanescent natural occurrences or man-made interventions into nature. Fog nearly conceals a floating crane. Streetlamps and the moon come in the same shape. A plume of smoke rising from a yard fire is strikingly white.

These images are informed by a curiosity that seems free of any angle, anger, or agenda. The images are not so much about the thing itself but about what is/has happened here, like the tree that lost a chunk of its canopy and the bird’s nest perched above water. They are more about an essence or idea than any specific incidence. (Although shooting locations are identified, it is a case in point that they do not really add anything to the experience of the images—it’s not that kind of knowledge that the artist is in pursuit of.) Thus cypresses become the essence of verticality. A seaweed covered rock is all bulk, weight, and slipperiness as it succumbs to the eternal tides. Pierced by rods, this particular boulder seems almost shamanistic or animalistic in character.

At the same time there is an interest in abstract, geometric forms of natural or human origin. Untitled_(Cliff grid) focuses on an incongruous grid hewn into (?) the side of a vertical drop. The aforementioned image, Untitled_(Street lights), plays on the more or less circular shape of light sources. And Untitled_(Barn) highlights the geometry of a barn. Man-made elements are completely integrated into nature, not destroying it. It is thus that the tower positioned at a rocky coastal edge appears particularly solid and stony with its stark edges and surrounded by jagged rocks. Yet it is clearly also fragile within nature, anchored to a base and tied down as it is. A similarly touching vulnerability pervades the image of two bushes wrapped for the winter amidst a barren field. They are hunched over like peasants draped in loose clothes, interacting with each other. I cannot help but think of The Annunciation, imbuing this scene with human, natural, and spiritual drama and mystery.

If compassion for this curious world of human and natural interaction can be depicted, these images come very close to it. Perfectly using the imperfections of the medium, Harbert’s images are nonjudgmental, appreciative of what is, not caught up in surfaces. This is a quiet viewing treat, one very much worth spending some time with.


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