When an artist with an exceptional eye finds something exceptional to look at and interpret with that eye, watch out. In the 16th century, Leonardo had his Mona Lisa; in the 19th century, John Singer Sargent had his Madame X; and in the 20th century, photographer Ansel Adams had no less exceptional a subject than the Great American West. Like all artists accorded the adjective "iconic," Adams (1902-1984) is easy to view through a musty, sepia-tinted monocle—a trend that Ansel Adams: Photographs 1920s-1960s does much to dispel. Crisply matted and framed in immaculate white, the prints incorporate close-up and medium-shot imagery, not just the expansive vistas that made Adams famous. Even those wide panoramas—witness the transcendent Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park—come across in a different light. Is this due to the art world's current post-ironic reappraisal of "old-fashioned" artists such as Adams, Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, or because contemporary viewers behold Adams' pristine ecospheres from the vantage point of increasing ecological devastation? Ponder that as you lose yourself in the photographer's moody moonrises, cloudscapes, mesas, rivers and mountains.
Unlike Adams, Portland-based filmmaker and installation artist Vanessa Renwick is very much alive and kicking, and has an unimpeachably contemporary sensibility. Like Adams, she reveres the American West to the point of obsession. In particular, she has made the Pacific Northwest a region of fond and profound study. In her exhibition, As Easy as Falling off a Log, she has created perhaps the most effective multimedia installation show to be mounted in a commercial Portland gallery over the past five years. Its elements—a small mountain of chopped wood appointed with bean bags and headphones, an audio-visual installation projected onto the ceiling, two cheeky neon pieces, a poignant short film titled Woodswoman, a hanging sculpture of blackened wood, as well as prints and photographs—demonstrate a virtuosity with materials anchored in a sound conceptual base. Working with lo-fi equipment (the projected films are grainy, the camera movements jerky), she nevertheless captures the grandeur of nature in a way that makes us all too aware of our human transience and vulnerabilities.
Ansel Adams at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, 134 NW 8th Ave., 287-3886. Closes Nov. 27. Vanessa Renwick at PDX Across the Hall, 925 NW Flanders St., 222-0063. Closes Nov. 27.