Works from Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Hana Hamplová blur the line between the figurative and the abstract.
The boundary between the figurative and the abstract is erased in curious ways in two new terrific photography exhibits at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum.
In “Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light,” Mexican street scenes — shot between the 1920s and 1990s — dominate. But content plays a secondary role to form. As the show’s introductory panel-text eloquently puts it, Bravo’s work emphasized “a poetic sense of light, composition, and perspective that privileged mood and metaphor over documentation.”
Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002) certainly had an eye for oddities: a building facade where a mural of two dancers is cut off at the waist (“Two Pairs of Legs”), a snoozing pup conked out beneath a perilously leaning fence (“Sleeping Dogs Bark”) or, more disturbingly, a beautiful sculpted face nestled among building debris (“Angel of the Quake,” taken in 1957 after a powerful earthquake hit Mexico City).
“Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light” “Hana Hamplová: Meditations on Paper”
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays through Dec. 31. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).
But he’s more than just a canny opportunist with his camera. He frequently teases a meditative stillness or surreal cosmic twist out of the sights he captures. “Portrait of the Eternal” is a lovely, shadowy study of a young woman whose face is partly obscured by some sort of head covering and whose hands are raised at odd angles before her as if to show her something she’s never seen before. There’s a strong sense of the physical serving as a gateway to the spiritual.
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“Box of Visions” is more humorous and more obviously staged. Still, as its title indicates, it’s concerned with matters beyond the temporal. It poses a female model behind a squat stone memorial. Above her head she holds a black shawl in such a way as to make a dark rectangular backdrop of it. Her presence is disorienting, her expression enigmatic.
In some photographs, Álvarez Bravo contrasts the organic shapes of plant life with man-made artifacts. In “Window on the Agaves,” the plant of the title is juxtaposed against a stucco villa. In “Reed and Television,” spiky leaves seem to be in conversation with a spindly television antenna.
Álvarez Bravo can parlay architectural forms into smooth reverie (“Window to the Choir”). He suggests the whole opening chapter of a life as he glimpses a boy crouched by a stage curtain, looking out at a bright, open, possibility-filled space (“First Act”). In all his work, the dreamlike repeatedly suffuses the documentary and the documentary opens a door to the transcendent.
In “Hana Hamplová: Meditations on Paper,” the Czech photographer, born in 1951, creates vivid visions out of stacked and warped paper gathered for recycling. All the images date from 1979 to 1981 and were spurred by a commission for a book project: the front cover of Bohumil Hrabal’s novella, “Too Loud a Solitude,” about an eccentric man who ponders the power of the books he’s destroying as he feeds them into a paper compactor.
Hamplová roamed the paper-recycling centers of Prague to capture these untitled images. In some, stacks of newspapers are clearly stacks of newspapers. In others, newspapers and book pages take on the characteristics of mountain ranges, ocean surf or cloudscapes. A few resemble geological studies. Others have something more architectural about them. Images of actual objects — a statue from antiquity, a news headline, a man’s smiling face — peer out from a handful of them.
Using humble materials (paper, cardboard, books), Hamplová weaves themes and variations on how the mundane can evoke the transcendent. It makes for a deeply satisfying show.