Pipe Dreams

"Connecticut Tobacco Fields: Three Views" at Hartford's 100 Pearl Gallery

By Patricia Rosoff
Hartford Advocate 08/20/98

A great test of viewpoint is to set a number of artists in front of the same object and see what they come up with. Even in photography--that medium of utmost objectivity in most people's book--there can be salient differences in style in the treatment of the same old thing.

Such is the case when three photographers take on tobacco fields in Connecticut Tobacco Fields: Three Views at Hartford's 100 Pearl Gallery. In this instance, the differences, of course, between the work of Andrew Buck, Lucy Sander Sceery, and Phyllis Crowley can be credited to technical matters, to happenstance, to chance variations of atmosphere. Ultimately, however, (and forgiving a little hippie slang) it is where the artist's head is at.

For Buck, the spectacle of screens of gauze, plants, sky and landscape is an essentially geometric exercise. He presents a great, austere, and wonderfully erudite display of geometric planes. Within the strictures of the frame, he offers dramas of quiet texture, of transparency, translucency and the dusty opaque, which settle themselves like utterly spare layers of stage curtains. Each fronting drape stands full-on, filling the proscenium, echoing its staunch rectilinear regularity and permitting only the merest suggestion of what might be going on behind.

In surreptitious leaks, a bit of grass might interrupt the apron of dirt at our feet, or poke a leafy "hand" from behind the edges of the scrim. The echelons of plants are alive behind the screen, their shadowy presence casting a restlessness upon the blankness of the view. The photographer stands outside the view, taking its measure, ordering it to stand still, to make sense. Buck is an artist playing with the Western history of art that demands simplicity, clarity, harmony, and order.

It is this essential tension that gives Buck's work its life: a stern Puritan struggle to cast regularity over nature, to make geometry visible. And to celebrate its measured music without the frilly distractions of riotous organic proliferation.

Crowley takes us inside the view, into the delicate tent of the gauze. Everywhere we are given to look, the screen walls come close around. Yet there is no claustrophobia, for these very walls are inhabited with light, hence with air, and the place carved out is like those we found as children under the draped tables and beds of our mothers' houses.

For Crowley, it is the cords that lead us in and out of the picture--tent lines that give a perspective and depth. The movement in these works stitches in and out, from way up here to way back there. These anchors carry us straight back to a single converging terminus, or else gracefully right in front of us. Inside the screen of netting--there is no glimpse of sky, only the dark horizon between a treeline and the ether as it is filtered through the delicate walls of our tent. In this world, Crowley, like a telephone lineman, seems to mark off the distances in pole-lengths, or study the rasp of the column she climbs.

Alongside the others, Sceery's views break like a thunderstorm, her views wide open, sweeping, baroque. There is no enclosure here, and no restraint, just huge, bracing, light-pregnant drama. In these pictures, the tobacco net is no wall, no screen, no barrier. Rather, it is a joyous player in a drama of light and atmosphere. Against the velvety darkness of her landscape, these great fat ropes animate the phrase "fiber optic cable"--their very strands seem lit from within.

Rather than draped and enclosing, her netting is rolled up and windblown--dramatic sweeps of bunting looping sideways in the currents, parallel to the ground, running before the wind in concert with turbulent fields of clouds being shunted by those same winds above. This is cosmic stuff, putting us not on the Earth but in the very currents of a dynamic universe.

Certainly this is about more than just tobacco!