Thursday, February 7, 2008
Waters sprint over rocks in a breathless frisson, effervescing the center of “Rushing Water, Virginia River, Zion National Monument, Utah, 1989.” They sweep the light across the rectangle in a bright rushing stripe, contrasting with the still, deep tones of the creek side beyond and the shallows in the fore. The flag of a divided country.
The skin of an open flower is taut, translucent. Its transparent veins stream with light in “Calla Lilies II, Pebble Beach, 1994.” A studio composition of deep formality, two columns – furled and unfurled lilies – stand out theatrically against the darkness, caressed with exquisite tenderness by the eye of the camera.
“Formalism is what I see in every subject he touches,” says Richard Gadd, director of the Weston Gallery in Carmel. “Formalism as abstraction says Rod Dresser to me.” Gadd was one of scores of photo savants who swept smiling into the floodlit gallery for a reception at the Center for Photographic Arts in Carmel last week to honor Dresser, whose work is exhibited there. The work was drawn from the past 25 years of a long career.
“Dennis [High, the director and curator of the Center for Photographic Arts] came to me several months ago and said he’d like to do a show for me,” Dresser says. “His only caveat was that ‘You can’t have anything to say in what images I pull.’ I said, ‘That sounds fine.’ He then went through hundreds of prints and pulled those that represented what he was looking for…which was the growth of my vision.
“When I photograph I distill things down to their essence,” he continues. “I concentrate on what it is in the viewfinder that excites me, and I try to eliminate all the distraction.”
Dresser borrows his definition of minimalism from the architect John Pawson, who said: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve by subtraction.”
On one wall near the entrance, four spare scratches on white are titled “Ice and Thistle, Yosemite 1985”; deep crevices scumbled on the white of brackish mud are “Cracked Mud, Owens Valley, 1986”; one clear black meandering line is drawn by shadow in “Root, Carmel, 1998.” Like thoughts revealed on paper, these observations seem to lead naturally to “Fern in Glass Vase, Carmel, 2002,” a dramatic studio arrangement of tumescent ferns unfurling in a simple vase, flooded with light to reduce the composition to a few strong and elegant lines.
“I wanted to show how his minimalism brought him to abstraction,” High says. “Even in his most traditional work, Rod has been drawn to hard edges and sharp lines.”
In “The Sensual Dunes, Death Valley National Monument, 1985” the earth’s smoothest skin drapes over a armature of convex and concave, pelvis and navel, the subtle emergence of belly and back and sweep of shivering sands. A later “Tri-S, Dunes, Death Valley National Monument, 1992” pushes the camera exposure to extract three successive triangles that march in an Amish quilt toward the horizon.
Nearby, the artist’s viewpoint takes over from nature completely in a grouping of abstracted surfaces…a brick façade in New Orleans, the granular etchings of wind on sand at Pfeiffer State Beach, the deep generational incisions of water on sandstone at Weston Beach. Here, nature is the raw material, a collage made of moss that mottles an ancient granite stair; accordioned rooftops are lines triangulating a deep shadow; the bold arch of a church window starkly frames its dark-glassed rectangles, an impudent counterpoint to the stubborn vertical of siding. Shredded wood around a doorway, a wall, the slats of a bench – all abandon their determinate nature to play an anonymous role in Dresser’s passionate play.
In his most recent work, Dresser images return to nature, but a nature exalted for its life force within.
“Four French Tulips, Carmel CA 2002” is a ballet of bursting bulbs leaning dramatically, but erect, impossibly supported by four slender stems. The flowers are monumental but humble, as if four small players in a crowd shot were raised on a dais, spotlit, and asked to tell their deepest secrets on camera.
In “Aspens, Carmel, 2006” a huge archival pigment print, Dresser has moved beyond photography. In an investigation that began with photographs of aspens then was generated anew in the computer, a cluster of four bold verticals stream upward against a deep, flat, black background. Aspens, surely, but not silver trunks flaked with bark, but rather, shining porcelain columns, dazzling rivulets of energy – the image seems to probe beneath the surface to the life force itself.
“My new work has to do with explaining, to people who care, that this is what I see when I photograph,” the artist says.