“2006 Omnium Gatherum,” the photography show at the Warwick Art Museum (through February 4), is an eclectic collection of work by 12 Rhode Islanders. Such a mixed bag fits the title of the exhibition, which is century-old side-show slang for “an odd collection.”
On display are images surreal to celebratory, abstract to observational. Curated by the Museum’s outgoing director, Damon A. Campagna, the exhibit is an interesting group portrait of contemporary imagination.
Imaginative technique as well as subject matter is on display. Regan Stacey Scheiber creates captivating visual metaphors by equating undergarments and other delicate articles of clothing with particular women. These are cyanotype photograms, made by exposing the sheer cloth on photosensitive paper to light for a long period. They are white on blue, like blueprints, and as luminous as x-rays. “Amelia — Strong, Brave, and Delicate, Her Finesse Defined Her,” for example, looks to be an infant’s lacy baptismal cap, and the comparison is equally graceful.
Some other treatments of people are direct. In Jack Lenk’s “America #2,” one young guy of a huddled trio smirks as he gives the camera the middle finger. This is a quiet little masterpiece that at first glance looks tossed off. Several things keep the composition from being simply a larky snapshot. Contrasting with the lighthearted expression, the face in the foreground is intense to the point of hostility, but teetering on that point rather than explicitly so, fascinatingly ambiguous. The warm-toned ultrachrome print accomplishes a classic chiaroscuro effect as the faces emerge out of framing shadows. As for the title, the crude gesture reveals its meaning when you notice that the gesturer has his other arm protectively around a younger man with Latino features.
Four photos by Jen Kodis are a lighthearted group. Two of them catch people in poses that are inexplicable until you read the titles. Then you see that the man suspended in an airplane position is demonstrating proper parachuting technique, and the two seated men twisting themselves like pretzels are in a back-care workshop.
Jill Palumbo creates some striking images in her false memory series, using blur to good effect. “False Memory #1: Fear” disorients us: a person at the top of the photo — we see only a hand — seems to be falling into a pit lined with steep stairs on one side. It takes a beat to notice that an oblique view of a stairway has been turned upside-down for the effect. Another photograph subtly deals with loss: a line of Polaroid images, most blackly underexposed, remind us of the fragility of memory.
A similar reorientation is attempted by Patrick Malone in a color image of the sun reflecting in fragmented, receding puddles. By turning the photograph upside down, a prosaic sight became completely abstract and visually arresting. Speaking of inobvious subjects, Melissa Foley pays appreciation to the sinuous convolutions of a loosely rewound roll of paper towels. Not exactly a voluptuous Edward Weston bell pepper, not even quite successful as a composition, but the photographer’s eye is in the right place.
Photographs that at first seem like complete abstractions but eventually resolve into a recognizable setting give extra satisfaction. Hilary Treadwell accomplishes this well in her black-and-white “Nightroom” series, with the back of a head, for example, emerging from shadows before what could be a star field or simply lights playing on a wall. Steven Jusczyk works similarly in color, although his “Drive-By Drive-Through” clearly reveals garish illuminated buildings against blackness, beneath scribbled white lines that simulate time-lapse photos of nighttime traffic.
Paul Choquette goes for outright surrealism in his tinkering with reality. Bio-engineered in Photoshop, one composition consists of a close-up of a hairy patch of skin with a bizarre rectangle centered on it like a mandala. In time you realize that the geometrically precise inset is a close-up of where two fingers join a hand.
The derelict buildings at the former Boys Training School in Cranston have been photographed nearly as often as sails in the sunset on Narragansett Bay. Donna St. Pierre has captured them in black-and-white and commented on them chillingly, yet her two images here are fully “realistic.” With skillful darkroom work (and probably a red filter for those dramatic clouds), she shows the empty windows of the three-story structures to look like black, vacant eyes, more dramatically than they would appear if you were actually standing there. Similarly, the shadow side of one building is featureless black, and yet the overall effect is softened by her giving a burnished glow to the light-colored façades. Praise to sophisticated technique — and the AS220 public darkrooms — for impressive old-school accomplishment in this digital age.