Washington, DC

Frank DiPerna

Kathleen Ewing Gallery

Frank DiPerna’s recent exhibition, “In the Studio: Frank DiPerna,” included fourteen photographs notable for their deceptively simple composition and saturated colors. The shots—mostly still lifes and tableaux—border on the surreal, a significant departure from the empiricist landscape photography for which the artist is best known. Moreover, they demonstrate in subtle ways his ability to intertwine irony and wit with an acute sense of texture and a resourceful use of found objects. DiPerna, a professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design, created this new body of work in order to acknowledge the peculiar influence of the studio atmosphere on his artistic vision, a process that entailed inventing new stories rather than interpreting narratives found in nature.

With this show, DiPerna joined the lineage of artists who embrace artifice as a new reality, one that might be traced back to seventeenth-century Dutch still life painters who depicted, with great precision, groups of flowers that don’t naturally bloom together. The comparison certainly applies to Pear, 2002, which has a painterly verisimilitude worthy of Fede Galizia. But DiPerna goes further, amassing demonstrably fake elements in scenes that feel entirely credible. For example, a vase of plastic flowers against an electric red background in Tulips, 2004, could have been photographed at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas.

The artist also creates amusing and discordant arrangements of objects while adhering to a commitment to portray, as he told me at the show’s opening, “things in a beautiful way.” Like an elegant sportsman’s trophy, Red Snapper, 2003, features the glistening pink and green carcass of the titular fish on an ovoid bed of crumpled wine red velvet. DiPerna’s stated aim is to make “images that I like to think of as beautiful and elegant on the surface and a little strange at their core,” and he succeeds. Teeth, 2002, for example, shows a dentist’s plaster cast of an upper jaw laid upside down on an undulating length of phosphorescent cantaloupe-colored velvet. Juxtaposing the two heightens the distinctiveness of their contrasting physical properties—brittle against sensuous. And the photograph’s use of bunched and gathered fabric to approximate topography illustrates how DiPerna reaches back to his roots in landscape photography.

The interregnum between DiPerna’s landscapes and “In the Studio” was a series of half-length, full frontal portraits of artists, writers, and friends (a group of eight images was included). Portraiture is still represented, though faces, typically portals for psychological insight, are partially or completely obscured with scarves and odd bits of maquillage. Randy, 2002, the most arresting image in the show, pictures a man wearing a chartreuse poncho and clear goggles, with a blue funnel strapped to his mouth. It’s reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Entered Apprentice from Cremaster 3, 2002, by way of Devo. DiPerna falters a bit in his approach to kitsch: Kewpie Dolls (circa 1940), 2005, ventures ill-advisedly into overused territory, though Bluebird, 2002, which features a plastic toy bird glaring menacingly from a placid landscape of forest green linen speckled with red dots, is a delightful image of avian malevolence. DiPerna claims an affinity with Paul Outerbridge, admiring his ability to skirt the edge of surrealism in photographs that are otherwise lit, clean, and modern. DiPerna adopts a comparable approach but adds a sly wit that’s all his own. “In the Studio” is a delicious picaresque.

Nord Wennerstrom