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Brother Grim 

Seen through Bruce Checefsky's lens, ordinary objects become macabre and magical.

"Black Forest," by Bruce Checefsky, photograph.
  • "Black Forest," by Bruce Checefsky, photograph.
Why would an internationally acclaimed artist make a pilgrimage to Germany's Black Forest? Viennese psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, in a famous book called The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, sets forth one possibility. "Since ancient times," Bettelheim writes, "the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near impenetrable world of our unconscious."

Cleveland photographer Bruce Checefsky made that trip to Germany recently, and his photographs of the Black Forest, full of brooding poetry and an almost palpable horror-movie chill, are now on view at Brett Mitchell Shaheen Inc. The show, Bruce Checefsky: New Photographs and Works on Paper, also includes several recent large-scale photograms (the cameraless style for which Checefsky is best known). Whether it's photographs or photograms, this impressive body of work seems obsessed with what exists "behind" an image: not capturing an object so much as celebrating what can be done with it. By calling attention to the manipulation of light and the clever blending of commonplace objects (in the photograms), and the intentional use of darkroom "accidents" (in the Black Forest shots), the artist takes the emphasis off of the common-sense understanding of these objects and, instead, stresses the imprint of his own view.

What's behind these images are Checefsky's dreams and technical preoccupations, not objectively rendered facts. In an artist's statement, Checefsky says that "more than clarity of description, which is what most people like in photography, I'm interested in layering photography to create larger poetic and philosophic associations." It's the combination of improvisation and technical control that creates this layering effect. In fact, Checefsky's working process has been likened to that of a draftsman or painter rather than that of a photographer.

Checefsky is like a puppet master pulling strings, but, since he also relies on darkroom "mistakes" and "accidents" that are beyond his control, he's also like a puppeteer who is sometimes controlled by his puppets (think, in this regard, of the Twilight Zone ventriloquist who fought with his dummy about who was really in charge). Checefsky uses all this tension to his advantage. The work is full of danger and a sense that things are barely under control. His point is that this is what it's like in the forest.

The 42-year-old Checefsky has long been known here for his solo shows at the William Busta Gallery, his role as the director of the Reinberger Galleries at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and, not least, a widely praised show at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art in 1996. Enjoying an international reputation, he has exhibited extensively at well-respected venues in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany. His claim to fame so far has been the revitalization of the photogram, the cameraless method that was popular during the '20s, when artists like American dadaist Man Ray used it to push the boundaries of photography. For many years following its heyday, the photogram method was dubbed archaic and gimmicky. Checefsky, obviously, has no truck with such views, and he has amassed a portfolio that impressively makes his case for the value of the technique.

Here's how the photogram process works: The artist stacks various found objects (like tennis rackets, snowshoes, and toys) directly on top of large sheets of photosensitive paper. A brief essay published by the gallery in conjunction with the exhibit tells us what happens next: "Using a variety of flashlights as a primary source, Checefsky moves around the paper to expose and re-expose certain parts of the paper." He then varies the developing and processing times in an effort to capture as many gradations of light and dark as possible. This process calls for the artist to recast the ordinary objects we live with every day into nonrepresentational shapes, textures, and patterns. The dadaists did this because they wanted to demonstrate their love of irrationality and to reject conventional values, but Checefsky is after something else.

Like many German expressionists, Checefsky instead seems to revel in what happens when the boundaries between the real and the unreal are obliterated. Snowshoes are no longer snowshoes and toys are no longer toys in his photograms -- they are patterns that are part of a choreographed show. Indeed, Checefsky creates complicated, abstract compositions in which each square inch is full of visual incident. If, for German expressionists, the show was an externalization of what was happening inside the artist (usually anxiety, bitterness, and heartache), for Checefsky the show is an externalization of what is happening within contemporary culture. Each frame is stuffed with what looks like shards of glass, X-ray images of parts of the body, and the naturally occurring abstract arrangements of leaves created every autumn when they fall to the pavement and a rain plasters them to the ground. The suggestion is that common household objects can be dangerous, strangely animate, and reassuringly ordinary all at once. The ordinary can be ominous.

In fact, Checefsky's photograms, with their combination of technical sleight of hand and their tendency to revel in fragmented objects, seem to record a danse macabre in which inanimate participants scurry to the tune of Death's fiddle, and in which the hints of ordinariness only increase the prevailing sense of unease.

Checefsky's recent Black Forest shots are a natural progression from his photograms. Though these are actual photographs (as opposed to the cameraless photograms) and they have a programatic content (what the gallery flier calls "the myth-drenched wooded landscape of the Brothers Grimm"), they share with the photograms a penchant for darkroom manipulation. But, in place of the jaggedness and crystalline textures that inform the photograms, these works go for a smoky, dusky atmosphere that fairly breathes mystery. There are no pure whites or blacks anywhere; this is a tension-laden world seen entirely in shades of gray.

The effect recalls German expressionist film director F.W. Murnau's chilling 1922 version of the Dracula story, which he called Nosferatu. In that film, Murnau and his cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner, used all sorts of clever devices to enhance the creepy, spectral atmosphere of the Carpathian woods through which the hero journeyed on his way to the vampire's castle. Like them, Checefsky uses a kind of low-contrast photography that exchanges stark black and white for a wide variety of intermediate grays. Also, Checefsky sometimes introduces a phosphorescent sort of glow in these photographs, which adds to the eeriness: Trees sometimes appear to glow from within, charged with a supernatural light. These illuminated trees are then contrasted with darker wooded areas on each side.

To cap things off, Checefsky's images are sometimes punctuated by darkroom-induced flashes of sharp light. These are examples of Checefsky's photographic "accidents." They are, however, clearly under the photographer's control: He knows what kind of accidents he wants, although the ultimate form they take cannot be preplanned. In the images on exhibit, it sometimes looks as though a nova has exploded on the photographic paper. Such explosions seem to function as reminders that, if the forest represents the unconscious, and if getting lost in the forest is a potentially troubling experience, there are flashes of insight that can make the experience a valuable one. Bruno Bettelheim again: "When we succeed in finding our way out [of the forest], we shall emerge with a much more developed humanity." Checefsky's flashes of light might be a metaphor for this more developed humanity.

This strong show is a rare opportunity to witness what happens when a talented artist reaches middle age and engages in a reassessment of the work that brought him fame, while having the courage to journey into the forest to search for new possible directions.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at cyannopoulos@clevescene.com.

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