The Hilles Gallery has put on an uneven but quietly impressive show with “5,” its month-long exhibition of photographs by five longtime faculty members at the Creative Arts Workshop. Local artists Marianne Bernstein, Terry Dagradi, Joan Fitzsimmons, Karen Klugman and Harold Shapiro are featured in the show, which is dominated by black-and-white photographs whose subjects range from unknown bridges to babies on sheepskin rugs.
Hanging just opposite the gallery door is a night view of the Eiffel Tower. By an accident of history, this image by Harold Shapiro, “rooftops — paris, france,” has been transformed in our eyes, as all architectural icons have taken on a tone of sinister poignancy. In the foreground, the garrets of Paris are eerily empty; no light shines in the windows. The only illumination is the floodlighting of the tower itself, standing tall in the distance.
In such company, the rest of the show struggles a bit to rise to the occasion. There are other fine images produced by skilled hands and eyes, but none are quite as evocative or powerful.
In a different vein, Marianne Bernstein’s “photographic journal” of a trip to Cajun Breaux Ridge, La., is a series of five masterfully executed and carefully selected works.
In one, an old man stands under the shade of a massive oak draped in Spanish moss. As in late photographs of Monet in his garden, this man seems both an organic part of his surroundings and a figure of determination, standing against the creeping aging that has whitened his beard and started the paint peeling from his porch.
Bernstein’s pair of photographs of black cowboys in Louisiana are also magnificent. I stood in front of one for several minutes before realizing with an embarrassed giggle what a sight we were — two people with their hands on their hips, giving each other the same cool, appraising look. It seemed appropriate that I was the first to look away — my shirt was not nearly so pressed, nor my fingers as laden with rings as this imperious figure who stared back. Next to him, a young boy stares with the same sober gaze past the head of his horse into the lens.
In the literature accompanying the show, Joan Fitzsimmons describes her work as “private doodles” created while “drifting in and out of thought.” It was difficult to tell which, but it has to be said that either they were a bit too “private” or there was a bit more drifting “out” than “in.”
A series of six silver prints, all titled “five finger exercise,” showed the same subject in different lights and poses: a hand with drinking straws taped to each finger. There were glimmers — a particular skin texture, the play of shadows, light reflecting off the straws — but ultimately, they couldn’t quite transcend themselves.
“Visual poems” is how Terry Dagradi describes her works. Among a smorgasbord of well-executed works with diverse subjects — an infant, bridges that seem to lead nowhere, waves on a beach — one captured the sentiment with particular success. “Chama river dance, new mexico,” shows a little girl of about six or seven in what must be her best white dress. On a bluff overlooking a small river, she’s twirling jubilantly, eyes toward the sky, arms outstretched, and all out of focus with the exception of one detail. Just above her tiny Mary Janes, there’s a point that’s in perfect focus — a little view of her frilly little socks. Along with the much-trampled little plot of earth at her feet, in sharp relief, this small detail justifies Dagradi’s entire series.
The bulk of Karen Klugman’s entries in the show are the eight paintings in her “greenhouse series,” but the most interesting are the last four. In these, rather than showing nature at its most domesticated — the hothouse — Klugman captures its power. In three works of an installation she created in Vernazza, Italy, green and red netting is draped, strung and knotted around olive tree trunks in an ancient grove. The visual effect is powerful, as the trees seem to glow in green defiance against the webbing.
As one might expect with a show that ranges so widely by everything but medium, “5” has its rough edges and thematic inconsistencies. But its mood — quiet, contained, pensive — remains constant and includes both powerful images and a few interesting confrontations between natural and artificial landscapes.
The Creative Arts Workshop
80 Audubon Street
Through Oct. 20, 2001