Flesh and Light

Radiant nudes feature in an exhibit at the Etherton Gallery

As a young woman in the late 1970s, Flor Garduño dropped out of art school to go to work for the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

Her title was darkroom assistant, and her task was printing Alvarez Bravo's masterly black and white images of Mexican street life and rituals. Over and over again, Garduño printed his famous murdered striker lying in a pool of blood, his woman combing her hair in semi-darkness. As she tells it herself in a short bio, Garduño learned about all there was to learn about printing in gelatin silver, in platinum and in palladium.

By the time she came to the attention of the international art world, her own photographs had become marvels of the printing art, immediately recognizable by velvety blacks and lustrous whites. She too tapped into the rich subject matter of her native Mexico, particularly indigenous Mexico, but her aesthetic was modernist, and her compositions were stripped down. In her breakout collection, Witnesses of Time (exhibited in Tucson at the Center for Creative Photography in 1992), Garduño reveled in a kind of magical realism, a photographic vision at once austere and sumptuous. In these pictures, a woman slept on a mat with two dead lizards at her side. A young girl emerged from darkness, the basket of white flowers on her head exploding into light.

Tucson is fortunate to have a photographer of her caliber exhibiting in town. A suite of 12 Garduño works is now at Etherton Gallery, part of the three-person fall photography show. The Figure Illuminated showcases provocative nudes (mostly female) by Garduño, and by New Yorker Ralph Gibson (an eminent artist who's shown at the CCP several times) and Englishman Alvin Booth.

Despite all her intensive darkroom work in the past, Garduño here uses the new computer wizardry for her printing. Carbon pigment inkjet printing, a nearly archival new process, allows the photographer to go large-scale and render her women monumental. The photographs are up to 3 to 4 feet on a side, but they lose nothing of the rich textures and tones that are the trademark of her gelatin silvers.

Highly stylized, with plain backdrops of textured black--or an occasional plain stucco Mexican wall or floor--her dramatic images occupy a modernist space that is nowhere and everywhere. Originally shot between 1997 and 2007, Garduño's photos all picture women of unearthly beauty. Their skin glistens in the light; their hair is luxuriant, their breasts lush. For the most part, they're with strangely surreal objects, daringly placed.

Two peacock feathers criss-cross a woman's torso, cradling her breasts and thrusting them out into the light in "Torso emplumado, México" (1999). Giant leaves sprout like angels' wings out of a woman's shoulder blades in "Lorena alada, México," 1997. In "La Columna, México," 2004, a woman is draped in the spine of a shark--or a snake.

These arresting images are sharp, chiseled, shot through with vivid lights and darks. "La Tortuga azul, Mexico" (2004), deviates from the pattern, picturing a woman lying on her belly next to a glowing blur of white. The light passage suggests the shimmering sea, an impression heightened by the turtle shell the woman has on her back. The turtle-woman seems about to slip in.

For all the Latin magical realism inherent in these startling images, drawn in part from Mexican folk traditions, elsewhere Garduño seems to be moving on to other sources. She divides her time now between Switzerland and Mexico, and some of the newer Swiss work draws on distinctively European traditions.

"Edén, Suiza" (2001) places two woman side by side, an Eve and Eve, one dark-skinned, one fair. Between them grows a giant plant stalk, whose monumental fringed leaf shades them like a parasol. Emblematic of fertility and abundance, these lush figures push back to an older European art history, more Hieronymus Bosch than Alvarez Bravo. Even their bodies, all rounded bellies and breasts, meet the medieval ideal. (The fair Eve, in fact, could have walked right out of van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece.)

Garduño even makes a literary reference, to Shakespeare's Hamlet in "Ofelia, Suiza." Reprising a favorite subject of the pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century, Garduño pictures the drowned Ofelia floating in a stream, nearby an elaborate waterfall and bank of rocks. (The complex setting is a radical departure from Garduño's normally spare backgrounds.) Though she's dead, of suicide, this Ofelia is still sensuous. Her soaked white gown falls fetchingly away, leaving one breast exposed.

By biological definition, Garduño is not part of the long tradition of the "male gaze" directed at the female body. Still, she celebrates the eroticism of a woman's flesh, while finding pleasure in its purely visual forms. A round breast is echoed in the circle patterns on a peacock's feather, the curve of a leaf repeats the slope of a buttock. "Cereza, Suiza," 2007, makes a metaphor between the body and the tree that beautifully frames it. The woman's arms follow the choreography of the branches, and her hip angles like the trunk.

Likewise, the well-known photographer Gibson, in this suite of 14 black and white photos dating from 1967 to 1987, uses sensuous bodies as elements of abstracted compositions. Often the bodies are mere fragments. "MJ with Towel," 1983, has a lighted female torso against an ink-black background. A pale towel held overhead obscures the woman's face, leaving just her breasts to glow in the light. Or, film noir style, a mere sliver of a face will ease out of the darkness, as in "Christine," 1974. But so artfully has Gibson arranged his lamps that the shadow down the middle of her face echoes her own profile.

Several are from his groundbreaking 1969 project The Somnambulist, a book of shadowy photographs suggesting night-walking and dreams. A woman's hands grasp a boat; in another a woman's hand is thrust through a doorway at the end of a lighted hallway.

Photographer Booth fragments the body even further, though he goes back and forth from female to male. In one collection of 40 round salt paper photographs, called "Peepholes," each tiny picture is dominated by one body part: a penis, a bottom, the sole of a foot.

Ova is a series of toned gelatin silver prints capturing a small part of a woman's body, patterned by light projected through a filter. A woman's neck and breasts are checkerboarded; the tile pattern of an old-fashioned bathroom floor shows up on her bottom up in the air.

If this sounds a little fetishy, it is. Any number of Booth's bodies are swathed in stretch bondage bands, and close-ups of penises tied up in straps abound. But Booth is wildly inventive. In the series Osmosis, the elusive bodies look like negatives, ephemeral and fleeting. Another series, Corpus, suggests the quick dazzling sketches rendered by a master at a figure drawing class. The models are dancing with all manner of stretch cloth, here poking a face through a hole, there tying the straps under some breasts, practicing a quick choreography of eroticism.

Most interesting of all are the paired bodies of a man and woman moving through a series of gestures. (Booth's bio says he's interested in the link between still and moving images.) In the most beautiful, "Untitled 9706135," from the Doubles series, they're standing, one in front of the other, with the woman's torso blocking out the view of the man's. Her legs are tucked together as primly as van Eyck's Eve's. But the man behind her wraps his big arms around her chest, and he spreads his legs out, creating an elegant opposition of diagonals and verticals. Through this bodily geometry, they fulfill a mandate that is nothing less than biblical: They are no longer two, but one flesh.

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