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Art Review: Vera Lutter at Gagosian Gallery

August 13, 2009 |  6:30 pm

Venice Making interesting photographs of Venice, Italy, is as easy as shooting the proverbial barrelful of fish. Everywhere you turn, there are richly decaying surfaces, luminous reflections, grand architecture, romantic vistas. The magic of the place and its formidable history seep out of every detail. The city is exceedingly generous with its beauty.

How can an artist create fresh, original images from such familiar splendor? One way to try, the choice of Vera Lutter, would be to use an unusual method. The German-born, New York-based photographer extrapolates from one of the oldest methods of writing with light. She uses a camera obscura (literally, “dark room”), essentially a pinhole camera writ large. She has built walk-in cameras of various sizes, and sometimes uses shipping containers. She hangs huge sheets of photosensitive paper on the camera’s back wall, opposite the lens-less aperture, and makes long exposures (hours, days) that yield detailed negatives. Instead of printing positives from those negatives, Lutter develops them into unique prints themselves, keeping the tonal values reversed. That day-for-night reversal delivers a jolt of the unexpected, which makes her photographs of Venice — now at Gagosian Gallery — if not fresh, at least striking.

The city’s shimmer is reduced to steely, monochrome contrasts. Its radiance is turned ghostly. The canals run black and gray under dark, flat skies. Shadowy colonnades gleam shockingly bright. There is a haunting quality to the pictures, many of which are composed of two or three panels, and are huge enough to encompass you when you step close to examine their details. The atmosphere is one of eternal winter, a landscape of ink and ice.

Lutter frames her views fairly conventionally, often anchoring the foregrounds with empty, moored gondolas. The long exposures blur the boats into lovely graphite wisps, while the wooden posts to which they are tied poke up from the water with fixed solidity. An expanse of water in the middle ground leads the eye deeper into the picture, toward a horizon of dark facades punctuated by rectangles of intense, blank light.

The tones in the prints — charcoal, ash, dust — are gorgeous, and the images contain exquisite details of corroded brickwork, stone tracery around doorways and balconies, and the scalloped ripples of drapery. The tonal transpositions give way to textural tweaks: Plants expanding lavishly out of window boxes billow like bushy white beards; one building’s facade is as smooth and pale as an ice sculpture, another’s looks carved of ebony; trees dematerialize into firework bursts of light.

Lutter has photographed a range of myriad architectural and industrial subjects, including airports, mining equipment and power stations. Structures that trade in a different sort of seduction than Venice, the seduction of scale and mechanical efficiency, lend themselves better to her technique. Lutter’s chilly style is so at odds with the lushness of Venice that the pictures feel like acts of suppression as much as revelation. She has sucked dry the city’s juicy sensuality, turned gold into lead. If the photographs resemble X-rays, it’s not just because they distill their subjects into black and white, but because they feel so clinical, all structure and no soul.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Sept. 12. Closed Saturdays and Sundays (summer hours). www.gagosian.com

--Leah Ollman

Above: Vera Lutter's Campo Santa Sofia, Venice, XXVII: December 20, 2007, 2007. Photo credit: Vera Lutter. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

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