Artistic Progeny

A Two-Artist Show At Bero Gallery Celebrates The Brainchildren Of Memory.

By Margaret Regan

WHAT WERE OUR parents like before we were born? It's almost impossible to imagine them in those ridiculously distant days, too hard to get our minds around them as young, flirtatious, proud of their sexy bodies. But there's no denying the evidence of old photographs. In Brownie black and whites or in garish early color prints we see them restored exuberantly to youth, romping at the beach, posing in their Sunday best, smiling pearly smiles with all their teeth intact.

Review The photographer Alis Cummings has constructed a whole suite of works around this disconcerting phenomenon. In a two-person show at Bero Gallery, shared with Cynthia Laureen Vogt, Cummings displays seven photographic diptychs that offer fragmented glimpses of her mother in her youth. While these pictures are evidently an intensely personal investigation, they also meditate on the ways that the camera can mimic the faultiness of memory. There's a pathos about them too. It's strange, and unbearably sad, that the images of the dead, or of the once-young, live on in the chemicals and paper of photographs.

My Mother's Dress: Recent Photographs is a series of toned silver gelatin prints paired into sets. At the left of each pair are tightly cropped pictures of her mother's face, apparently recycled from old family photographs. (The artist doesn't tell us whether her mother has died, or whether she's just grown older from the young woman she is in these pictures.) Cummings has doctored the originals in the same way that memory only records bits and pieces of a scene: They're bigger or smaller or blurrier than reality. The photographer never permits into her work a complete image of the woman's face, or a completely realized memory. What Cummings seems to remember best, and to show the most, is her mother's megawatt smile. In every portrait, the mother's dazzling mouth is front and center, sometimes all alone, magnified to gigantic, almost monstrous size. Other times the smile is set in the chin and neck, or shown with the nose and a lock of hair. Only in "Untitled #23" do we see another part of the body along with that smile. This one shows the lively young woman's torso, dolled up in a two-piece bathing suit and radiantly sunlit.

Joined with these pale, grainy pictures are shots that are evidently reconstructions of a memory. These darker, murky pictures show a shiny dark dress in what seems to be a bedroom. Somebody is under the silky fabric and that somebody seems to be lolling provocatively on a bed. The dress is draped across knees, lies on the sheet, hangs from a provocative shoulder. These photos are abstracted compositions in dark and light, but they're sensual, tentatively moving into the verboten terrain of a parent's sexuality. They suggest the type of isolated sense memories that we keep from childhood: the texture of a silky fabric, the dark and light in a room, maybe even the scent of a dress--and a woman--long gone.

Vogt has created a series of finely crafted artists' books in Aberrations and Other Photographic Artist's Books. Her long, narrow "accordion" books fold at each page and collapse into tiny volumes that can be tied up with string.

A lot of meticulous effort has gone into these productions. Not only did Vogt take the photographs that illustrate them and write their texts, she's assembled them with the utmost care, making cutout collages, gluing and layering laser prints and photocopies made on fine papers, and stitching them all together with thread.

The stories the books tell are not anywhere close to a conventional narrative, though their dialogues hint at a debate about erotic relationships. In most of the books, some ice-cream parlor chairs stand in as the main characters, aided and abetted by the occasional human nude, the chairs tilting this way and that, offering odd glimpses of other pictures glued behind their cut-out legs, and in one book ("Aberrations: If You Would Know") end up nailed helplessly to the wall. "Aberrations: Lost Faith" appears to have a happier ending, with a nice circle of four human feet walking harmoniously in a circle.

Vogt has a gift for collage, and visually her compositions are intricate, even ingenious affairs. Their main failing is that she's made them so tiny that it's a chore to see the pictures, and painful to read the texts. Sometimes she arranges her teensy letters vertically, making them even more annoying. It's a mystery why an artist would make the aesthetic choice to make her work almost too hard to look at. TW

A show of photographs by Alis Cummings and handmade books by Cynthia Laureen Vogt continues through Saturday, April 11, at Bero Gallery, 41 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 to 7 p.m. Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information call 792-0313.

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