In the Galleries: In Black and white, day meets night in shades of gray
Mankind’s first artistic urge was probably a primitive study in black and white — a piece of charcoal plucked from ashes and scratched on something somewhat flat. Somebody, maybe somebody as yet too primitive to even have a name, looked at that crude etching and saw a mysterious connection to something else in the world.
A couple hundred thousand years later, a student at Buffalo State College, Brian DeVantier, heard about a big roll of photographic paper that Kodak was giving away. The price was right, so DeVantier picked it up and decided to try something new.
He painted a sheet of the white paper black and then, not unlike an ape with fleck of charcoal, he carefully scraped bits of the acrylic away. Bit by bit he revealed an image that had a mysterious connection to something else in the world.
He was on to something no one else, to his knowledge, had ever done.
Over time, he expanded the technique. He laid down his field of black on whiteboard, metal, paper and other flat surfaces. He scraped with twigs, bark, feathers, sandpaper, his fingers or anything else that worked. He softened the high contrast images by smudging or sponging away the black.
He became famous for his work. He won awards. He kept exploring, reaching beyond strict aesthetics to broach the problems of the world — war, inustice, pollution, deforestation — all reduced to seemingly simple monochrome images.
But monochrome can speak louder than the garishness of color. In a world too noisy with color, black and white stands out. In that the viewers of art seek meaning in what they are looking at, the absence of color leaves open more space for the imagination.
The imagination finishes the artist’s work. When there’s less to look at, there’s more to see.
The winds of fate eventually landed DeVantier in Norwich and then at a dinner table with Waterford photographer Susan Parish. There was some wine involved. They got to talking. Imagery in black and white inevitably came up, as did an idea.
Why not a single exhibit juxtaposing DeVantier’s art with Parish’s photography?
Parish doesn’t specialize in black and white photography, though she used to, back in the days of 35mm Tri-X and Pan-X film. Her earliest work involved all the chemicals, labor and papers of darkroom work. Digital photography did away with that, and she wasn’t sad to see it go.
Photoshop changed her life.
But something remained in her approach to capturing images from the world. Her work tends to look at sets of shapes, patterns, and subtle shades of a given color. And often, a color picture is of something that is basically black and white.
Parish spends a lot of time in Mexico, a good place for her kind of eye. She sees something in the pastel plasters and gray concrete. The colors are muted under a sun that brings out warmth and shadows in subtle shades.
She spends time in Connecticut, too, where winter’s snow outlines the black of leafless trees, the grays of old fence rails, the shadows interweaving stone walls. A good snowfall robs vast landscapes of all color, leaving less to look at, more to see.
The dream of a mutual exhibit is coming true at Norwich Arts Center March 2-31, with an opening reception 6-8 p.m. on March 3. The NAC galleries at 60 Broadway are open Thursday to Saturday, noon to 4.
Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, painter, and managing editor of New London Librarium.