New York Times
ART REVIEWS; Photographs That Comment on the Subject

Published: February 1, 2004

'Explosive Photography'
Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, (516)484-9338.
Through April 25.

The term ''explosive'' in the title of this show refers both to the large size of the prints and to the increasing dominance of a certain attitude toward photographic representation in contemporary art. That attitude -- of cultural critique masquerading as deadpan voyeurism -- is exemplified here by the German husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their cool, monochromatic portraits of mundane buildings, from water towers to slate-covered houses, straddle the line between documentation and commentary.

Three of their former students take the Bechers' aesthetic to the next level. Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff treat architecture as a monumental ordering of space, where humans are minimized or eliminated. Yet their subjects -- houses, machines, museums, railroad stations -- were designed by people for people. Looking at these images, one feels simultaneously empathetic and alienated. Only on a huge scale could the prints involve the viewer so directly.

The show is balanced in favor of three American photographers who have invoked advertising and film as a way of connecting with, and paradoxically distancing, the viewer. The most deliberately enigmatic is John Baldessari, whose hand-colored photomontages recall their much more intimate precursors in pre-World War II Russia and Germany. With a cast of stock characters, often masked by colored circles over their faces, Mr. Baldessari's tableaus have the disconcerting quality of Surrealist film stills blown up to nightmare proportions.

Cindy Sherman is well known for her pseudo-film stills, in which she plays stereotypical roles from imaginary but plausible scenarios. Several of these early images are on view, together with later large-scale color prints, also of herself, in various guises. Her work has come to look like a series of waxwork simulations, but deliberately so, as if to tease the imagination into a game of inventing both the character and the context.

Like Ms. Sherman, Gregory Crewdson creates elaborate cinematic situations with quirky implicit narratives. His venues are suburban side streets, where nothing extraordinary is supposed to happen. But the scenes are full of anomalies, as if they had been visited by alien forces. They may not have the visceral impact of a great sci-fi thriller, but they offer a stop-action equivalent.

'Photography 2004'
Gallery North, 90 North Country Road, Setauket, (631)751-2676. Through Feb. 8.

Both the subject matter and the scale here are more familiar and conventional, although digital technology has allowed Tom Steele to render a panoramic view of Montauk's Hither Hills in the velvety textures and lush colors of a large pastel painting. The rhythms of breaking surf and windswept dune grass are warmly accented by the afternoon light. Mr. Steele's other prints are small sepia-toned studies of weathered buildings and boats, the sort of subjects for which the word picturesque was coined.

Barbara Roux takes a more ambivalent view of the landscape, which for her contains evidence of human disrespect as well as natural decay. Her efforts to mitigate these effects include capturing a beautiful but fleeting reflection, and enhancing a damaged tree with a touch of color or a line of poetry. Her photographs document incidents that she either encounters or creates.

Richard Nowicki works in the tradition of the great 19th-century landscapists, who used large formats and long exposures to record minute details of impressive vistas. His intense observations of coastal scenery are marvels of technical prowess and pictorial complexity.

Conversely, Barbara Perrino's ''Vanishing Landscape'' images seem to dissolve before the lens. Open spaces and isolated landmarks are bathed in diffused light, as if fading into the mists of memory.

There is also a transience about Kathy Kennedy's landscapes, but of a less romantic type. Her color prints catch the motion of flowers, grasses and foliage animated slightly by the breeze, just enough to remind that, while the photograph is static, nature is dynamic.

'Annual Winners Exhibition'
Smithtown Township Arts Council, Mills Pond House, 660 Rte. 25A, St. James, (631)862-6575. Through Feb. 6.

Three of the four winners of last year's juried shows are photographers, although one, David Herman, is a painter and violinmaker as well.

Perhaps it was his craftsman's curiosity that led to Mr. Herman's interest in the images on airport baggage scanners. Even before today's heightened security measures, he began a series of photographs of his family's possessions under X-ray scrutiny. Normally seen only in passing, here they are held up for prolonged contemplation. The images are eerily fascinating, revealing not only the hidden and sometimes beautiful structures beneath the surfaces of everyday objects, but also the invasive nature of such monitoring.

Gerald Shak is also concerned with momentary phenomena, but he emphasizes their temporal character by allowing them to unfold before the camera. It is interesting to compare his images of people looking at art in galleries and museums to the pictures of Mr. Struth at the Nassau County Museum. Mr. Struth emphasizes static spectators dwarfed by mammoth architecture. Mr. Shak prefers more intimate spaces, and instead of a fixed reference point, he favors the constantly shifting perspective of the viewer vis--vis the work of art.

Lucy Brown Karwoski takes a formalist approach in black-and-white images. Light and shadow play major roles in her still lifes, like ''Book Light,'' with its glowing reflections, and ''Fishy,'' with its shiny dried fish tucked into the folds of cabbage leaves.