Thursday, January 22, 2009
The crisp white-on-white space is all clean angles and shadowed planes interacting formally as in an early Cubist painting. Here at the Center for Photographic Arts exhibition, Tobin Keller: Six Decades of Men and Other Portraits, light bounces through and within some 40 transparent artworks, spills onto walls, floors, ceilings, creates an exhilarating presence as if in a frozen moment in which hundreds of novena candles are caught sending up hails and hallelujahs from every direction.
Even in this venue that has long been an axis of modern photography, Tobin Keller is a highly unusual exhibition. Photography is only the starting point – but it is the essence – of the multilayered, transparent panels. Within each, a man or woman regards the viewer with a direct, expressionless gaze, body evenly balanced and square to the camera, completely without affect, as if posing for an anatomical drawing. Caught within these artworks, they gaze out through the glassy portals, quiet of emotion, deep within themselves, and completely trusting: beings tenderly embedded within glistening capsules. The exhilarating spill of light, crisp cleanness of the environment and intimacy with which each is seen creates an alchemical reaction: a poignant recognition of shared brotherhood and empathy.
Portraits are screenprinted onto clear or opaque plates of greenish glass or acrylic panel; some are life-sized. Each panel is an amalgam of multiple layers – – multiple glass sheets fused together, each with a type of information within a whole sandwich of meaning – or layers created by light and shadow.
A photographic portrait screenprinted in sepia, platinum gray is the basis of each work. Some works contain diagrams and cross-sections of biological illustrations, shards of floating glass, shadows of other photographs, bubbles and holes, scored lines, patches of scrubbed and scumbled obfuscation, inset shapes – all redolent of meaning. Lit to the point of combustion from multiple angles, each projects its distinct shadow to the next, or becomes part of a jagged weave of shadow on the wall behind or underneath it.
Hanging half-walls open into the gallery from the entrance; from them, six acutely angled shelves project into the room, each supporting a dense square transparent block that can be viewed back and front.
These works are part of Keller’s examination of “six decades of men” in which the unmarred beauty of youth and the droopier solidity of age is a device within which he presents individuals, their gifts and their tragedies, and the process of aging in portraits of male friends in each decade of life – from Robert, in his late teens to Richard, in his 60’s.
“Arthur” is an older man, still muscular, his frame made to seem bulkier by staggered portrait layers, adding dimension. From one side, he looks out with glasses – one lens becoming a glassy bubble that projects toward the viewer. Scored lines connect that bubble with others in an esoteric and personal constellation. Viewed from another direction, the back of Arthur’s head becomes a giant Hasselblad lens. “Self Portrait” layers the artist’s photographic portrait of himself with a silhouette of the male figure, including fleshtoned penises in a layer that seems like a cellular view. Within those dense layers and on the surface is frozen a creamy spill, with the look of accident.
“Adam’s Virus” offers a view of a handsome young man whose sandwich of layers is pocked with holes that seem melted. Some are passages to another layer, some obscure what’s beneath them. A large clear circle like a Petri dish creates what seems like a magnified view of bloody cells within a bubble that obscures the back of Adam’s head. The turbulence of the interior is belied by the contented expression of the subject.
Opposite the entryway is “Expanding,” an installation of 12 panels of life-sized portraits on acrylic panels, each suspended perpendicular to the wall, spaced about 6 feet apart, lit from many angles to create a complex and beautiful dance of light and color beneath them and through each other.
At the two ends are black-and-white portraits of the artist whose edge facing the viewer is black. The 10 layers within are portraits of men and women, each superimposed on a pattern the artist uses in many of his works – the familiar contours of the brain’s “gray matter.” That pattern, in pink, colors the edges of each of these interior layers: the neural and emotional content of Keller, who is also well-respected as a painter and as a teacher and curator at Cabrillo College in Aptos.