Part abstract and part surreal, Merians' images tease the viewer's need to recognize and understand their parts. She models brightly colored clay to form organic-looking objects like fingers, sea life or strange fruit, then stages them in "sets" of hypercolored lighting. The resulting tableaux often suggest alien landscapes conceived for Gumby.
Controlling every aspect of her compositions from subject to ground, color to atmosphere, Merians possesses the same kind of artistic freedom as a painter with a blank canvas. (If it weren't for the pronounced fingerprints she leaves on the clay models, one might think these images were paintings.) Conceptually, her camera is no more important than any other step in her art-making process.
Artifice is subtle in Will May's work. His subjects are sometimes posed, but in gestures not out of the ordinary. His lighting is natural or mimics natural light. If he manipulates the negative, it is also slight. While Merians' subject matter is in fact artifice, May hones in on realities of the self.
May builds his moody, introspective scenes with atmospheres rich in tone and texture. In his interior shots, lone models are garbed in clothes that could be from earlier times. Sometimes wearing items like a clown's bulb nose, or the skeleton of a hoop skirt, the models pose against weathered backdrops as abandoned stage performers. Exterior shots marry figures with the natural environment with an equal degree of loneliness.
These photographs present themselves like paintings if only for their size, but May's painterly tact extends beyond his photographs' format. Especially where figures are set against pure nature, May conjures images reminiscent of Winslow Homer though with an existential edge. And in every instance, movement of subject matter during exposure that produces blurred or fuzzy areas presents itself as the photographer's version of loose brushwork. Even the edges of each photograph are left raw to reveal how each picture bleeds into the frame. This results in layers of tone that appear to shift and slide much as in Homer's late watercolors.
By ignoring what a typical audience might expect a photograph to be, Merians and May have each found ways to deepen the pool where meaning can be found. S
Photographs by Will May and Valerie Merians are on display at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St., through July 27.
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