Washington, DC

Colby Caldwell

Nostalgia maintains a coy but persistent presence in Colby Caldwell’s exhibition “small game,” the title of which refers in part to both the visual legerdemain possible with Photoshop and to his family’s legacy of hunting in North Carolina and Montana. The show consisted of twenty-two photographs and a five-channel video installation, all relating human interaction with landscape to themes of presence and absence, nostalgia and memory.

The physicality of traditional photography has long been a driving force behind Caldwell’s work, but “small game” represents his parallel dedication to the use of digital imaging. The quality of his presentation remains consistent across media—refined and elegant, here also benefiting from exceptionally careful installation. Each image has been printed on watercolor paper (“not plastic,” the artist insists), then mounted on a wooden support and waxed. White space, in the form of either an actual frame or a generous border, here references a conventional snapshot format but also has a subtly fetishistic effect. Further, the whole sequence begins, appropriately, to resemble a collection of hunting trophies, sharing the uncannily real but lifeless quality of a stuffed and mounted head.

The theme of presence is explored in seven images of individuals in landscapes. The location is similar in each but is captured during different planting cycles—wheat, corn, and fallow. Caldwell calls the works “gestus pictures,” invoking Bertold Brecht’s insistence that actors should sometimes replace words with gestures. The results are decidedly mixed; only some of the gestures that the subjects make are demonstrative enough to withstand Caldwell’s slick production values, while others tend to be overwhelmed by them. His treatment of the theme of absence, represented by land- and riverscapes, is equally problematic. After nature (63) (all works 2006) engagingly balances the aloof, the heroic, and the transcendent, but the impact of a trio of placid, bucolic images—after nature (5), after nature (42), and after nature (93)—is dissipated by those generous borders.

The most successful work in the show was the video installation, rounds, which is based in part on a series of digitized short color Super 8 movies of Caldwell’s grandfather’s 1961 hunting expeditions to Montana. Brief fragments, strung together without regard for chronological order, represent different portions of these trips. These are interspersed with a short Walker Evans–esque black-and-white clip, filmed thirty years earlier, of the artist’s great-grandmother. The same footage is shown on all five monitors, but the images are unsynchronized. The resultant mélange of faded pictures is, in its personal reference, by far the most accessible work in the show. It cogently and movingly elucidates the artist’s connection with his subject matter and ably represents the intellectual heft of his outwardly process-oriented methodology.

Nord Wennerstrom