Christopher Russell’s new exhibition Cascades at Von Lintel Gallery features a suite of recent works that both pursues and evolves the artist’s eccentrically hands-on relationship to photography and the landscape.
For a number of years, Russell has been exploring variables in his landscape photography practice, experimenting with both material and physical intervention to create work that is equally dependent on his foundational actions with the camera as the analog material manipulations that come later.
Although it is important for reasons of palette and atmospheric light quality — plus a certain less definable but quite perceptible sense of place — that the artist actually go and photograph elements of nature like earth, water, sky or forest, on site he covers the camera lens with translucent textiles as he shoots. This process obscures any specific imagery but somehow retains a recognizable plein air energy, creating rich color fields full of fluttering shape, flickering light, shadows that hint at the illusion of pictorial space, and a low-register sensation of the weather.
But that place of abstraction is not where it stops for Russell; far from it. With a variety of surgical studio tools (razors mostly), he scratches away at the glossy surface of these photographic prints, like scratch-board or linoleum block, picking away to reveal the white of the paper backing beneath. Not only does he create elaborate, fractal but almost Celtic patterns in this way but increasingly images as well, such as he does here with farm houses and tall ships. Importantly, this process also visibly, physically distresses the surface of the prints, so that a low-pile roughness gives the imagery an organic hand-drawn quality that belies its precision-tooled, meticulous making. Waterfalls is a good metaphor for this process, the movement, the mist, the diffusion of light, the low roar.
Russell also folds his work, in sort fanned-out creases, like when you smooth out a paper airplane. His creates further variation across the surface as light rakes and throws delicate, shallow shadows that affect the color tint and create the effect of line-drawing. In one particularly compelling work, “Willamette Falls #3,” all of the above combines in a single work to great effect. The blues emulate sky, the folds begin at the halfway horizon line, the folds emulate water, the rough-piqued lines of a crush of masted vessels reads like an iceberg. A whole procession of abstractions comes back around into something almost like realism in the end; it’s a great trick.
In other works such as the majestic and pastoral “Willamette Falls #5” Russell scratches into the surface of the optium (think high-end plexiglass) of the framing, so that intricate patterns are introduced into the composition by way of ghostly cast shadows rather than direct etching. In another, “Willamette Falls #1” he combines two prints of opposite color profiles, a warm orange and a silky teal, the latter on top and shredded like a car wash, creating a flirty peek-a-boo and a real dimensionality as well as a sense of mystery and a gesture — veiling — that goes back to the beginning of his process with the camera.
Von Lintel Gallery in the Bendix Building, 1201 Maple Ave. #212, downtown. Exhibition is on view Wed.-Sat., noon-6 p.m., through March 7. vonlintel.com.