Art

Photo retrospective ‘While I Am Still’ is ambitious and unconvincing

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Linda Alterwitz’s “Untitled 104” in While I Am Still
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Two stars

While I Am Still Through May 9; Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The Studio at Sahara West Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave., 702-507-3630.

Linda Alterwitz’s mid-career retrospective, While I Am Still, is an ambitious collection of 50-some photographic pieces on view in a whopping 4,427 square feet of gallery space. While the work fails to make a convincing fine-art statement, it does succeed admirably in terms of creating an educational environment where the relationship between technology and art is, well … probed.

A plaintive Neil Young soundtrack greets visitors at the entrance, setting a maudlin tone. An interesting display cabinet commands the first room, full of canine X-rays, fetal sonograms and various med-tech paraphernalia. The cabinet functions as a prop introducing the science-meets-art angle of the exhibition. On the walls hang elongated photographs printed on aluminum from Alterwitz’s series, Flesh and Bone. In these works, she transforms enlarged canine X-rays into landscapes. As teaching moments, audiences might thrill in figuring out what part of the doggie is on display, but as landscapes the muffled black and white images struggle for impact.

In the second room, Alterwitz presents three photographic series: In-Sight, Mojave and Just Breathe. In “Untitled 76” from In-Sight, Alterwitz superimposes medical imagery with fabric and flowers, recalling edgy photos by Joel-Peter Witkin; the clean lines, depth of field and frontal plane make this work exceptional. In general, the figure-and-fabric photographs possess a bondage quality that gives them verve. Other photos in the In-Sight series have a Hallmark-card-meets-zombie-apocalypse aura, as it is difficult to superimpose body imagery on landscapes without invoking cliché.

In Alterwitz’s latest series, Just Breathe, participants lie on the ground with cameras on their stomachs and “breathe” during 30-second exposures. The sky/breath portraits are assembled in an indifferent 40-panel work, accompanied by explanatory aids, including a photo of a girl with a camera atop her tummy and a sincere, hand-written description of her thoughts at the time. Just Breathe provides an accessible prompt for discussing one’s place in the universe, as does the “Life Is Beautiful” installation in the final gallery. It features photographic banners with medical imagery hanging in the center of a darkened room with wall-sized photos of the Mojave at the perimeter.

As an educational exhibit, While I Am Still easily dovetails into STEM curricula. But as fine art, the quality is doubtful. Photography is a fraught medium, rarely able to shake its roots in documentation, no matter what ornate effects are applied. An X-ray is, almost always, an X-ray. More importantly, the exhibition points to the slippage between concept and execution: having an idea is enough for a commercial art market, but for the higher stakes of fine art—where art history is in the balance—the work has to astonish, provoke, thrill, mystify and/or disturb, not once but again and again. For all its high-production values, While I Am Still is, in fact, too still.

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