Whimsy in the Water; It's All About Us | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Whimsy in the Water; It's All About Us


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Whimsy in the Water

Children were giggling at the 41 photographs in Arthur Tress's "Fish Tank Sonata," chosen from the 71 images collected in his book of the same name. Tress creates fanciful still lifes by arranging props inside an antique fish tank, which he hauls to various locations to photograph. He's divided his images into five sections and accompanies each print with a goofy, playful poem. Collectively they tell a story: guided by a red snapper "spirit fish," a fisherman gains insight into everything from the "rise and fall of civilizations" to the "many aspects of love." In Turtle Pond, Central Park, New York City, two silly-looking rubber frogs and a pond behind the tank illustrate how "sea creatures moved onto land"; in front of the frogs is a human couple dancing, showing one result of the evolutionary process. Usually Tress's locations are near a body of water--a reflecting pool at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pacific Ocean in California, where Tress lives. The objects come from flea markets and thrift stores near the sites of the photos--and the water in the tank comes from the sites too.

Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Tress is best known for photographing staged surrealist fantasies that he calls "metaphysical narratives," some with "an ecological story line." He took up photography in his early teens, making images of abandoned areas of Coney Island, and in his early 20s studied Japanese gardening in Kyoto. Duane Michals, whose sequential photographs tell stories, was a mentor and Tress's main influence. The pictures in Fish Tank Sonata were made between 1987 and 1990, but it took Tress over a decade to find a publisher.

What I really like about these images is the artificiality of Tress's humorously juxtaposed objects in toy-store colors: he creates surreal little worlds. In Moreau Lake, Wilton, New York, a variety of fish rest on colored gravel underwater while behind them a fisherman and a red fish sit in a pink ceramic rowboat to illustrate the accompanying poem, about how the red snapper jumps into the fisherman's skiff. The objects in the foreground are in sharp focus, standing out from a soft-focus lake and trees behind the tank, enhancing the sense that we're viewing two different worlds.

A few photos in the fifth section decry pollution. East River, New York City shows Tress's tank in front of a smoke-spewing power plant on the opposite shore, and two of three skulls in the tank have glowing eyes. The poem reads in part: "The fisherman saw that humankind / Would rapidly follow in decline." Since much of the show appears to celebrate plastic kitsch and artificial constructions, it seems odd to point a finger at polluters--they're simply fulfilling the taste for manufactured excess these photos celebrate.

Arthur Tress: Fish Tank Sonata

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

When: Through February 13

Info: 312-346-3278

It's All About Us

Toronto architect and architectural photographer Michael Awad is exhibiting five wide scroll photos very different from his other professional work: the pedestrians in his cityscapes are relatively sharp while the buildings are blurred. Piazza San Marco, Venice converts this virtual museum of architectural history into a modernist vision of horizontal lines. Only people and pigeons are clearly visible--though many of them are somewhat indistinct too.

Awad makes these images with a custom-built camera whose shutter stays open while the film moves past the lens; the exposure time is between one and four minutes. People moving at the same speed and in the same direction as the film are pretty clear. But things moving slower or faster are fuzzy, and things moving in the opposite direction are blurred to invisibility--so all the visible pedestrians are moving in one direction, which adds a surreal touch. Awad discards the great majority of his images because unpredictable street activity results in compositions he doesn't like.

Awad pushes photography in the direction of other media--not only cinema but also Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings on scrolls. What his unfolding depictions make plain is that the dynamics of urban life can no more be grasped as a whole than a city street can be reduced to a snapshot. They also have a creepy mechanical look, as human beings sometimes take on geometrical forms. 5th Avenue, New York City fooled me at first with what seemed to be skateboard shapes under the pedestrians--actually blurred images of their feet. New York isn't totally obliterated--some yellow cabs are visible--but the hazy lines of buildings function almost like wallpaper, setting off the moving people. Like the ancients who believed that the sun goes around the earth, we're led to think that buildings revolve around human beings.

Michael Awad: Five Cities

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

When: Through February 20

Info: 312-346-3278

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