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The Forest and the Trees


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Yannick Demmerle

at Vedanta, through June 14, and Arndt & Partner, through June 7

The theatricality of Andreas Gursky's and Thomas Struth's large-format photography gives their images the quality of public events, and their mural-like surfaces re-create the power of mass-media imagery: some of Gursky's digitally altered photos depict a profusion of consumer objects while Struth's unaltered works often show people in museums looking at paintings--and other things. Yannick Demmerle, who lives near Berlin, also makes large prints with strong compositions, but his work comes from a very different aesthetic.

Demmerle, who's 33, was born and raised in a small French town near the German border; seven of his eight photographs at Vedanta--his first one-person show in the United States--were taken in northern German forests. Quiet and contemplative, they seem to address not the viewer as a member of a group, the way Gursky's and Struth's do, but the individual viewer--as do the paintings of 19th-century German romantic Caspar David Friedrich, one of Demmerle's influences. Both artists lead the viewer into a private journey of discovery.

One of the forest pictures (all of which are untitled) shows trees growing close together, some rising straight up and some leaning to the left--an apparently organized mixture of verticals and diagonals softened by the out-of-focus but still tactile leaves in the foreground. Beyond the trunks, in the background, another maze of soft greens draws the viewer's attention. This sensual, meditative image invites the eye to wander and contemplate. I thought of German nature artist Wolfgang Laib, who makes simple, subtle, elegant sculptures of marble and milk or beeswax and wood.

Another forest photo is more spare: trunks bare of branches rise from a gently rolling carpet of green; in the distant background more pine trees can be seen. The dynamic contrast between the straight brown trunks and the green forest floor reminds us that the trees have sprung from the fertile earth. These trees also seem beautifully ordered, somewhere in between the grid of tree-farm plantings and weed-lot chaos. The composition makes many of them appear to be touching the others knowingly--nature feels alive here, as if manifesting a logic of its own in its mix of pattern and variation, recalling the veins of a leaf or of an insect's wing.

Though Demmerle had taken photographs casually since his early teens, it was at 17, when he discovered the work of Robert Frank and Stephen Shore, that he "understood that photography could be done in an intelligent way." Around the same time he began skipping school in favor of visiting the woods, at first photographing himself there. Soon he abandoned that "very adolescent" activity to spend time in nature without photographing it. Shortly after, in art school in Strasbourg, he discovered German painting, from Durer to Otto Dix to Georg Baselitz, preferring it to French art: he felt the German artists "really needed to do exactly what they wanted--they seemed to have been forced to do it." He was also impressed not only by Friedrich but by German romantic painter Carl Gustav Carus and by romantic writers such as Baudelaire and Novalis; he spent "hundreds of hours in libraries" because these authors made "no compromises." He achieves the planned look of his photographs by carefully selecting sites and angles, walking until a place "offers a resistance" to his thoughts, then returning several times before selecting a composition.

Another photo at Vedanta depicts a swamp full of gnarled trees rising from a watery bed; when the eye is drawn through trunks and brush, one sees more water. The balance between water and sky, the sense that the thickets of branches are colliding in mysterious awareness of one another, the feeling of knowing unity--all arise from Demmerle's perfectly chosen angle. Unlike Ansel Adams, this photographer doesn't offer images that stun through obvious beauty but seeks to portray nature's quiet integrity and unity. The viewer is drawn in, but not by trompe l'oeil illusion or escapist narrative.

The one photo at Vedanta not taken in a forest, Baltic Sea, reveals Demmerle's romantic roots even more explicitly: a soft field of blue interrupted by a few vague ripples seduces the viewer with sensual, measureless, almost frightening space. Demmerle describes his early forest travels as "melancholy," and here as elsewhere his work seems imbued with the melancholy of a loner's wanderings.

Three untitled images in a group show mounted by Demmerle's Berlin gallery in a rented space downstairs from Vedanta are from a different body of work: taken in two Berlin zoos, these photographs emphasize the geometry of empty cages. Each is shot head-on, so that the cage's grid confronts the eye as a barrier, echoed by the grids of tiles on the rear walls and by other rectangular forms: doors, windows, vents. One cage contains a tree for an animal to climb; another holds a log and some rope. The obvious contrast between the imprisoning grids and these few, spare organic forms heightens our sense of the two pictures' difference from Demmerle's nature photographs, perhaps showing a nature lover's hatred of zoos. But the way the grids echo the photo's rectangle also calls attention to the photographic process, just as Struth's and Gursky's works do. There's a crucial difference, however: Demmerle's pictures don't celebrate the structure inherent in zoos and photography but see that artificiality as a potential trap.

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