Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Shimmering walls of light at BlackRock

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Photo courtesy of the artist
The subjects in Joanna Knox’s photographs are vehicles for ambient light. The translucent fabric in ‘‘White Curtain, Claxton, Ga.” combines with the black form on the wall to suggest a ghostly presence.
Few things are as nice on a warm, late summer day than entering the cool and airy gallery of the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown. With the exhibit now on view, the high white walls also seem to shimmer with soft pale blue and turquoise light. A pronounced stillness permeates the space, encouraging a feeling of slowing calm.

Sean Hennessey’s three-dimensional multimedia works and Joanna Knox’s photographs of the interiors of abandoned houses are well matched here. The installation is not segregated by artist. Instead, the works are interspersed on the walls as if to comment on each other. Although Hennessey is more conceptually oriented, both artists aim to provoke meditation on the existence of things and places, focusing on the way that ordinary things carry a personal history, a ‘‘past presence,” as the title of Knox’s series suggests.

Hennessey is an emerging area artist of considerable and varied talents. Having worked in professional theater for 10 years, he still moves between the theater and fine arts communities here. His theater experience is evident in the existential themes his artwork embodies, mostly metaphorically, and from a very personal point of view. Exploring what he has called ‘‘the heroic journey of our common everyday self,” Hennessey is interested in the passage of time, and in creating visual metaphors for that within the context of ordinary life. His works in this exhibit (‘‘Metaphor. Time. Truth.”) begin as flat wooden boxes that are painted and covered with plaster to create a worn, even distressed, appearance. To these boxes, Hennessey attaches light concrete castings of small objects — lightbulbs, bottles, dollhouse doors — as well as cast glass reliefs that have the aqua color of frozen water. The glass reliefs contain casts of simple objects as well, save for the interesting work ‘‘How do I hold on to happiness?” that has a cast of the artist’s hand. Many of the works, including this one, seem to speak a discourse on the studio — the hand, a brush, a squeezed paint tube. Others, featuring the light bulbs and a strange flywheel type gear, seem to be metaphorical of the passage of time (the wheel) and of spiritual illumination (the light bulbs). The glass reliefs also contain figures cast from tiny wooden dolls that came from a child’s play set. Reduced to a round ball for the head and a cylinder for the body, and deprived of the painted-on details of the originals, these simple geometric forms still convey their identity as human figures. Later versions of this toy were molded plastic, but having been raised by his grandparents, Hennessey has the old, nostalgia-filled kind. Their presence here speaks of his own past, of the child manipulating little people in a perfect world. The two themes — artist’s studio and childhood memories — are not so far apart.

Knox’s extraordinary photographs are an ideal complement to Hennessey’s reliefs, exploring, as they do, the theme of time and its inexorable effect on place. She is a master at what she does. The color pictures in this exhibit are of interiors of abandoned houses in rural Georgia and deserted buildings at Forest Glen. Using an antiquated camera, Knox explored the backroads of Savannah, where she earned a master of fine arts degree. Entering a decaying room, she would set up the camera and put the dark cloth over her head — just like old-time photographers did — so she could see the light form an image with this old-fashioned equipment. It takes time. It takes waiting. This is exactly what she wanted.

Knox, who teaches photography at Rockville High School, is careful not to just take pictures. In all cases, she employs very tight compositions that not only take formal relationships into consideration, but also nuances of light. This is why her photos shine with that blue transparency that links them to Hennessey’s reliefs. Both artists exude that narrative sense of the ghostly remainder, the traces of human life in the chipped plaster.

‘‘Mr. Davis’ Replica Bed, Walthourville, Ga.” is a good example. This photo brings the viewer to the foot of a bed covered with a dusty sheet. The bed is against a wooden wall with a slightly open shutter so that strips of bright light are seen along its edges. The bed itself is what might be expected, but looking at it slowly an entire landscape of shifting shapes comes into view.

Also fascinating are ‘‘A Childhood Door” and ‘‘Potato Farmer.” Both of these, as many of the other photos in this exhibit, play with a sense of scale. ‘‘A Childhood Door” is a tiny door in a former dorm room at Forest Glen, the photo a symphony of whites to make Whistler proud. It also makes you think of ‘‘Alice Through the Looking Glass.” ‘‘Potato Farmer” shows shiny dark red potatoes on the floor near a door. From a distance, they look like coffee beans. If they were beans, then this door also would be tiny. It has a beautiful blue strip along its edge, going from light to dark blue, where the layers of time in this image are revealed.

Knox doesn’t want to represent as much as she wants to refer. Photos like ‘‘Mr. Rogers’ Three Hats” from the ‘‘Old Rogers House” in Claxton, Ga., are redolent of ghostly presence. ‘‘Trophy, Claxton, Ga.” shows an ancient fireplace with a vase of plastic flowers above it. ‘‘Dollhouse Chair, Claxton, Ga.,” showing a miniature chair inexplicably hung on the wall near a pile of real dining chairs (perhaps by a child leaving the home?) wrenches the heart while intriguing the senses.