Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat

Human Abstractions

Connie Imboden and her recent works, at Heineman Myers (4728 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, Md.). This exhibit runs through April 25. For more details, call 301-951-7900, or you can visit www.heinemanmyers.com or the artist’s web site at www.connieimboden.com.

After 25 years of shooting black and white images of the human form, Baltimore photographer Connie Imboden takes on the world of color imagery in her latest show at Heineman Myers.
Eight of her older black and white images round out the show, but let there be no doubt about it, the 21 color works taken over the past year are the focus of this show.
Back in 1983 Imboden became fascinated with the distortions and interactions of light and water. Ever since then, her work has been focused on reflections and the human form. Her path has been one of exploration and discovery, allowing for entertaining twists and turns along the way. Using either water or degraded plastic mirrors, her work has remained fresh as it’s evolved over time. Her stylistic themes have gone from extreme distortions to fairly grotesque images, to challenging images that defy the viewer to identify what body parts are shown, or wryly make one body part look like another part.
Her latest body of work relies on the mercurial reflections seen on the underside surface of water when submerged and looking up. By posing her models partially in, and partially out of the water the surface acts as a visual membrane through which the models seem to be passing. Oddest of all, is the way Imboden’s current images have virtually no sense of being shot underwater at all. The submerged photos are, with rare exceptions, devoid of bubbles. There is no form distortion, only a color shift that renders submerged body parts in a pallid, if not dead tonal range. Your mind tends to flop things around a bit, attempting to see the clear parts as airborne, and the distorted parts as submerged – which is the exact opposite of the way things really are.
Shooting at night with a hand held strobe, Imboden’s figures float against an isolating field of black. The effect is akin to slick studio work shot against black, seamless paper. Mind you, Imboden’s backyard pool is a studio. It just happens to be a very wet one. The resulting work has an unavoidably metaphoric quality about it. In fact this body of work is so metaphoric it’s difficult to read it any other way. Yes, the images are fascinating to look at, and the reflections seem magical in their own way. But when you have a nude model that simultaneously appears to be both female and male, as two of these images do, then you’re clearly working on a higher level than the purely decorative one.
The water’s surface often acts as a visual, physical, and often metaphoric membrane with two distinct sides – “this side” and “the other side.” In most cases, it’s this sense of transition made visible that gives the work it’s overpowering metaphorical presence. Utilizing this transitional effect, one of the most amazing images here seems a perfect metaphor for all of art history, keeping in mind that the history of art can succinctly be thought of as “before photography” and “after the advent of photography.” The two periods are distinctly different in feel, goals, purpose and thinking. No other point in all of art history has even remotely had the same transformative effect.
Photography revolutionized all artistic disciplines, by changing the way artists thought about art. Suddenly artists were released from the centuries old task of visually recording people and events for history. Once photography became wide spread, artists were free to focus on emotions, feelings, and pure expression. Imboden’s image features a male model reaching back to steady himself so he can poke just the lower part of his face and the tip of the opposite shoulder underwater. That’s the reality of what’s happening.
As we look at the resulting image we see a male torso rendered in a warm muted palette with a vaguely distorted fuzziness that reads far more as painterly than photographic. The arm that reaches back for support, seems to be reaching back in time, directly referencing the centuries long development of three point perspective, replete with vanishing points. Of which a complete understanding didn’t truly arrive until the advent of the camera obscura, photography’s immediate predecessor.
Shot at twilight, the tree tops are visible in this image, and thusly also reference landscape painting. Keeping in mind that various combinations of portraiture and landscape painting comprise the main body of art made before photography.
The portions of the model visible underwater are razor sharp in an unmistakably ‘warts and all’ photographic way. The pallid skin palette gives it an additional cold mechanical feel to it, and one that no self respecting painter would ever use on a portrait. Befitting photography’s relative youth, this area occupies a small portion of the overall picture. However, the photographic area is closest to the viewer and clearly the way things are headed. I’ll go way, way out on a limb here, and say that in all my years of art consumption I can’t recall a single image that even attempts what this image accomplishes. It’s almost an insult to call it an amazing image.
Another photo features a Madonna-esque depiction of a female face just shy of half submerged. The other half of the face is made up of the same side’s mirror reflection on the underside of the water’s surface. Intense light from the strobe is caught where water meets face. The resulting illuminated line has varying line weight reminiscent of expressive drawings. The light’s intensity in this fairly dark environment seems as if we are watching the Holy Spirit touch her.
This is one of those shows that’s almost too good. Many artists hit on a groove like this one, and then spend the rest of their lives repeating and refining it. Imboden’s past is varied enough that we aren’t too worried about that. Still the thought looms… how is she going to top this?

The Northern Virginia Art Beat is compiled by Kevin Mellema. See www.fcnp.com for photos and more. To e-mail submissions, send them to kevinmellema@gmail.com.

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