R.B. Gassie's current photographs, on display at Corporate and Museum Frame, are all untitled and described as "manipulated B&W photographs." The lack of clues in this description adds in some effect to the pictures' near impenetrability. Whether capturing still life or portraiture, Gassie plays with cropping, focus and the printing process to produce an image that seems just out of grasp of the viewer's sensibility.
Gassie's first two photographs in the show, for example, seem to be traditional still-life studies of leaves and flowers, and yet he has so manipulated the subject through layers of printing in sepia and black-and-white tones that wash across the paper, that they have become fluid abstractions. These two photographs are reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings in which close-ups of flowers, plants and cow skulls emphasize the formal arrangement of color and shape over meaning and narrative.
Particularly beautiful is a photograph of three pears. Gassie has changed the transient nature of the fruit with washes of brown sepia that give the objects a more archaic, eternal existence. A recurring motif and technique in Gassie's art is that of placing marbles on the prints to explore the effects of layering as well as temporal processes. These photogram elements (or cameraless pictures) require arranging objects directly on light-sensitive paper that is then exposed, developed, fixed and washed. Marbles make for interesting photograms because they are partly translucent and thus capable of modulating light. Hovering above the pears, these marble imprints look like eyeballs or hole punches that abruptly change the contrived space, flattening the image and making the viewer more aware of the process of photography itself.
Gassie's portraits offer exemplary examples of visual lies. Framed within a type of iconic semicircular format like an altarpiece, the image is cropped to reveal the figure from torso up to just below the eyes. Without the eyes, the subjects are strangely vulnerable we can look at them, but they can't look at us. In one portrait, a young man with a goatee holds a parrot. He wears an odd vest covered with plastic eyeballs of the crafts-store variety. The circles of the eyeballs are echoed in the marble photograms scattered at the bottom, providing formal rhythms that slightly eclipse the eeriness of the image.
That the artist is the chief photojournalist for the Fauquier Times-Democrat, a large newspaper in Warrenton, helps explain why the manipulation of photographs holds such meaning for him. Perhaps it offers a release from the "straight" photography required for photojournalism. In these works, done on his own time, that magic, that metaphysical process, that Donovan describes can be more subjectively and freely explored. S
"R.B. Gassie: Photographs" will be on display at The Gallery at Corporate and Museum Frame, 301 W. Broad St., through April 2. Call 643-6858.