New York

Tina Potter

R. C. Erpf Gallery

Photography can be used as an abstract medium only with difficulty. Its primary purpose has been to reveal detail, to provide a surfeit of information about the scene it depicts. The illusion that photographs offer an objective picture of reality is based on just this overwhelming ocean of data that it offers. Photographers who want to emphasize the pictorial qualities of the medium—chiaroscuro, texture, abstract form—have to find ways to suppress its unflagging tendency to depict specific and recognizable scenes, and by the same token to forestall the tendency on the part of viewers to read the pictures for precisely those references to the world beyond the picture.

Tina Potter presented 17 photocollages in this exhibition (all from 1987), and, in one group of them at least, from her “Icon Series,” she has come up with an interesting solution to this problem of photography’s insistence on offering subject matter. Using cut-up pieces of scientific photographs of the moon’s surface, complete with identifying letters superimposed on the image and barely perceptible lines where the picture was scanned for transmission, she has assembled figures that suggest the bulbous, archetypal forms of prehistoric sculpture. Seen from a distance, these pictures have an almost brutal simplicity; in Icon: Visage #2, for example, the shadowy lunar craters become the eyes and mouth of a skull-like object. In others from this series, Potter uses the roughly circular outlines of the craters and the bulges of the moon’s mountains to suggest the billowing breasts and hips of fertility figurines. By setting up a tension between the information offered by the photographs and the figures she makes out of them, Potter links the ceremonies of modern technological conquest with the religious mysteries of prehistoric cultures.

In the other collages shown here—from the “Radiation Series” and the “Debris Series”—Potter works with various types of photographs, among them prints of X-rays and pictures of what look to be debris-strewn interiors, but employs them more for their formal qualities than for what they represent. (The fact that the photographs are out of focus and printed in high contrast further obscures their subject matter.) In Debris Series #6, for example, cut-up photographs of loops of twisted metal from a car wreck, transformed into white lines against a black background, form a dense, tangly composition that reads like a somewhat cartoony black-and-white illustration of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Potter was trained as a painter, and she shows a sensitivity to traditional questions of pictorial form and spatial rendering as they have been dealt with in abstract painting. It can be argued, too, that in combining the forms found in bits of photographs she is pursuing a technique based on a balance between accepting and directing chance that is comparable to the balance Pollock relied upon in his drip paintings. However, in the “Radiation” and “Debris” series, the subject matter of the photographs that Potter has selected as her raw material—nebulous and indistinct as it may be—doesn’t add much to the meaning of the formal arrangements she makes of them. As a result, these works seem frustratingly incomplete. The question of subject matter is a central one in any medium; in photography it is unavoidable.

Reviwed by Charles Hagen.