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San Francisco
Brice Bischoff, Ellen Black, Tabitha Soren
Johansson Projects
2300 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, CA 94612
August 25, 2011 - October 15, 2011

Landscape and Literature
by Liz Glass

Continuing my exploration of Oakland’s contemporary galleries, I visited Johansson Projects at 23rd and Telegraph. It was images of Brice Bischoff’s enigmatic photographs from his Bronson Cave series from 2009 that drew me into the gallery this month. Part of a three-person group show, minimally titled Bischoff Soren Black, Bischoff’s photographs are the conceptual and aesthetic anchor for Johansson Project’s rumination on landscape and construct. I went in for a closer look at Bischoff’s images, which set swirls of rainbow colors against dark landscapes of cave entrances, belying the circumstances of their reality. Slightly anthropomorphic without supplying any concrete indications of their humanity, these mirage-like forms seem to materialize against the magically uninhabited backdrop.

Mirroring Bischoff’s work in scale and their solemn emptiness, Tabitha Soren’s Panic Beach photographs depict dizzying views of the ocean waves. Even the largest of these works, which, at sixteen feet long, begins at the ceiling and spills onto the floor, robs us of our sense of orientation; ultra-crisp, but with no horizon line in view, the waves push against the geometric limitations of the photo’s borders, resulting in somewhat claustrophobic compositions.

While the size and feel of the works of Bischoff and Soren work together seamlessly, Ellen Black’s videos seem out of sync and scale with the other works. Something of the barren, exaggerated drama present in Bischoff’s and Soren’s untouched landscapes is lost in Black's oddly animated—and, significantly, it seems, populated—video works. While the presentation of Black’s smaller works (Ocean Beach, Last Summer, and Former Recreation Area), all of which are set within their own abstract geometric frames, seems an interesting trope, they seem muted and small next to the large-scale photographs of the other two artists.

In a back room at Oakland’s Johansson Projects, small, sketchily-painted canvases line the walls while a set of re-covered books, their insides gutted and re-told in shorthand, sit atop simple shelves. While I was drawn into the gallery this month to see the mysterious cave photographs of Brice Bischoff, and tense oceanscapes of Ellen Black, this installation of Ottinger’s works should not be overlooked.

Staged in the gallery as a preview of the exhibition travelling to London—as Ottinger’s first solo exhibition abroad—this showcase offers a set of paintings and mock-ups portraying recognizable scenes from English literary classics. One painting, Meet My Better Half (Scene from Jane Eyre), 2011, renders the moment from Charlotte Brontë’s book when Mr. Rochester reveals his deranged wife, locked away in some forgotten dusty wing of his expansive estate. In her three-dimensional works, Ottinger hollows out classic texts, like Moby Dick and The Invisible Man, replacing the dust jacket with her own illustrations, and providing short synopses inside where the famous words once were.

Ottinger’s pieces struck a chord with me, not only for their distinctive illustrative style, but also because they place Ottinger in line with a whole group of emerging artists who recreate—some painstakingly, and others through more expressionistic interpretations—items from our everyday life. Artists like James Sterling Pitt, Elisheva Biernoff, Steve Wolfe, and Ottinger, as well, create works that aim to recapitulate their individual worlds in some way, whether through trompe l’oeil realms or down-and-dirty imitation. There is something throughout these works that captivates me; I think it has to do with the intimacy of these things, which hold a meaning for the artists, but as cultural touchstones, also speak to the viewers. Though less excruciating in their detail and accuracy than some, Ottinger’s works quietly and successfully reach out to me.

Liz Glass, an artist and writer living in San Francisco.
Top Image: Brice Bischoff, Cave VI, C-print, 1/5. Courtesy of the artist and Johansson Projects. 

Posted by Liz Glass on 9/19/11 | tags: photography conceptual video-art mixed-media

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