Surrealists in Bloom

MOCA's photographers follow in the steps of Man Ray

Photographers probably have difficulty convincing skeptical audiences that their work is indeed a craft. After all, it's created on highly complex machines that everybody uses. Just point and click, yes? No.

Skill and sensitivity are as essential to the photographer as any artist, and both traits are on display in the creations of nine artists in the Museum of Contemporary Art's newest exhibition, Delicious Fields: Ohio Photographers at Work.

The title is an allusion to Man Ray's Champs Délicieux, a 1922 volume of surrealist photography. The show, however, is not a tribute. It is simply a showcase of talent among Ohio's experimental photographers. The title is as much a winking nod to our state's agricultural reputation as it is an allusion to the openness to invention and avant-garde shared by Ray and the participating artists. The two loose themes uniting the show — Ohio residency and the uncanny — delightfully allow for broad expression and innovation.

The works are only "surreal" in the broadest sense; they disorient viewers by nudging them out of their daily expectations. If we are shocked, it is not by the bodily rudeness or optical illusions often employed by Ray's colleagues. The shocks here come by way of technical ingenuity and the newness of another's perspective presented with force and clarity. Contrary to the giddy misanthropy of the classic surrealists, the assembled photographers are earnest, curious, and generous in their exploration of social realities.

Though more humane than their predecessors, many of the show's artists share Ray's drive for originality not just with the content of pictures, but the mechanics in which those pictures are made. Clevelander Bruce Checefsky foregoes cameras, instead using a modified desktop scanner to capture the image of flowers through a tiny lens and over a long exposure time. The combined effects chart the path of the blossom's subtle movement in the wind, resulting in images distorted not in space, but in time. In "Pink Dahlia," we do not see the whole flower at any given moment, but a sequence of fragments representing cross sections of the bloom that passed over the lens at different times. The result is metaphysically profound and immensely pleasing to the eye; the distortions leave plain the brilliant color of Checefsky's garden.

Joy Christiansen Erb's Remembered sequence renders scenes of a pre-tween girl's life, each evocative of a broader narrative of growth. In "The Mistake," a pair of scissors hidden from Mother behind a girl's back communicates shame about an experiment in grooming gone awry. But the secretiveness also suggests the possibility of violence and foreshadows the friction between parental authority and growing independence. Christiansen Erb honors childhood by refusing to call it wholly innocent, validating the emotional travails of pre-adolescence usually dismissed as melodrama.

Marcella Hackbardt exhibits work from her 2010 Story of Knowledges series, which examine truth, its pursuit, and its effects on social life and the self. Her most striking piece, "Objectivity," presents a female protagonist in a sandy expanse. She holds a model of a human eyeball while staring intently beyond us. Deep in the distance are eight figures, posed as if in familiar conversation. Alone with her three eyes in the wasteland, the woman's "objectivity" is the coveted and controversial "view from nowhere," perspective unfiltered by personal concerns and social influence. Hackbardt illustrates this ideal without making her judgment on it overt; her protagonist's face is grave, but not distressed. "Objectivity," like all of Hackbardt's pieces, allegorically presents states of contemplation and truth-searching. These moments of doubt and wonder are quickly relatable.

Elsewhere, Vietnam-born Pipo Nguyen-Duy's work represents the show's most urgent social commentary, portraying the scarred survivors of war in his home country. The pictures are humbling to see, as they force us to acknowledge the humanity of those with visible disabilities, whom we often only treat with unease.

Placards throughout the exhibit refer visitors to a number to call to receive an audio tour, led by the artists and co-curator Lisa Kurzner. If you have time, experience the show once in silence, then again with audio accompaniment. So much of the work is engaging even without commentary, but it is also fair to let the creators speak for themselves.

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