New York

Gwenn Thomas

John Weber Gallery

Gwenn Thomas is one of the most exciting younger artists working with photography and painting today. Her methods for transforming photographic images into a new, distinctive line of pictorial objects were tellingly revealed here.

What Thomas does not do is paint over the photograph’s surface, although this is a favorite device among many artists in this arena. What she does do is create an intriguingly specific space around her photographs, a frame that permits her to keep her color Type C or Cibachrome prints intact but profoundly altered, nevertheless, by the means of presentation.

Cityscape, 1982, is representative. A color photograph of a Lower Manhattan street scene is mounted on board and centered on a wooden box. The “frame,” meaning the area between the edges of the photograph and those of the box, is painted in an abstract composition that appears to extend the photograph while also offering active and critical commentary on its form and subject, and on photography in general. In painting this “frame,” Thomas takes coloristic and spatial clues from the photograph itself. The colors are the major ones present in the photograph. An asphalt gutter is gray, with white-painted traffic lanes beyond it; a man at the right, radically cropped, wears a black suit and white shirt. The framing composition consists of slashing gray lines, gray sharp-edged forms, and black vertical and horizontal bands against a white ground, all of which continue or echo important lines or patterns in the photograph. These extensions serve to integrate the photograph with the frame, pulling the viewer’s eye over the surface of the entire object.

The painted frame also focuses attention on the subject of the photograph and on photography itself as a medium. Individual motifs point up the dominant characteristics of this slice-of-life scene (the constricted space, frenzied pace, and fragmented vision of the city) while their arrangement, by simultaneously echoing and subverting the rectilinearity of the frame, invites the viewer to enter the deep space of the image. Here, and in the other examples included in the show, the issue of photographic flatness versus photographic illusionism is raised along with thoughts about the idea of the color photograph as a reproduction of reality.

Thomas has been investigating the boxed-frame format for her photographs since 1979, and the approach is one that is in tune with her background in painting and sculpture. The earlier pieces were smaller, and the painted frame more closely reproduced and expanded the photographic images, which were usually landscape subjects. Like Cityscape, the other more recent photographs have as their subjects the streets of Lower Manhattan, where Thomas has lived and worked for several years. In several examples, Cityscape included, there are overt references to the special brand of aggressive urban art found in this part of town—billboards by artists and graffiti by all comers, art-school trained or not, on trucks and buildings. Each example in the show is unique. Most of the photographic prints are 20 by 24 inches in size, with some as large as 30 by 40 inches; but the size of the frame and therefore of the final object varies, as does the kind and degree of information expressed in the abstract composition of the painted frame.

Thomas’ work offers a bold vision definitely worth watching in the future.

Ronny H. Cohen