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Photo Negative: Two Exhibits Reconsider Historic Images 

Wednesday, Jan 23 2013
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From a distance, Amy Trachtenberg's Stripes/Sutras looks like marbled paper — the kind with luminous swirls that you'd find inside a 19th-century book about English grammar. Look closer, though: One section of Stripes/Sutras has the head of an Iraqi man. And next to him is an Iraqi who seems to be waving his arm in anger. What's he chanting? And how did he get into the marbled paper? Here's how: From a front page of the New York Times, Trachtenberg took an image of a frenetic funeral in the Middle East, and, over and over again, she manipulated it with her hands and with a copy machine to make a collage of newer images. Stripes/Sutras — its entire 4 feet — is a surreal recycling of life and death in wartime Iraq. Trachtenberg even twisted the Times logo into a vertical pattern that resembles Arabic lettering.

"I really tried to invert how we look at these images that we see every day," says Trachtenberg.

That inversion includes printing Stripes/Sutras on a rich Japanese paper that accentuates the pinks, yellows, and turquoises flowing through the funeral scene from 2008, when the coffin of Riyadh al-Nuri, a prominent aide to Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was carried by a throng of grieving men. Stripes/Sutras is the centerpiece of "From India to the Planet Mars," an exhibit ofTrachtenberg's new work at Brian Gross Fine Art.

Stripes/Sutras is an artistic departure for Trachtenberg, who's known for her abstract paintings and, more recently, multimedia constructions that incorporate thin panels of different materials. Trachtenberg, though, has always immersed her work into different cultural areas — including theater, opera, dance, and architecture — and has traveled widely, including to India and the Arab world, so Stripes/Sutras is really a coming-out of sorts that coincides with a much larger project in Trachtenberg's life: Ecstatic Voyaging, a work commissioned for BART's new Milpitas extension. When finished, Ecstatic Voyaging will incorporate 20 tall, tiled columns shaped like ziggurats, the elevated constructions that originated in the ancient Middle East. A fusion of cultures is embedded in Trachtenberg's art and artwork titles like Stripes/Sutras.

"Stripes are like these compressions of really different realities, and sutras are like compressions of knowledge," says Trachtenberg, a San Francisco resident. "It's exciting for me right now because things that I've been obsessed with, like Islamic architecture — I'm figuring out ways to still be a painter and have that come into play in my studio, and then become part of the main subject of a public project."

While Trachtenberg's artwork speaks to the global overlap of cultures, the Fraenkel Gallery exhibit "The Unphotographable" gives us a cross section of images that are global in their appeal. Mixing abstract and more straightforward work, "The Unphotographable" features big names (Gerhard Richter, Alfred Stieglitz), names that should be bigger (Kota Ezawa, Chris McCaw), and photographers from previous eras whose names were never put on their work. The template of "unphotographable" gives this exhibit a wide license to roam — and roam it does, exemplified by Ezawa's Lubbock Lights, an image with lightbox that revisits the V-patterned UFO lights seen over Texas in 1951.

The subject of death is addressed by two stirring works: Richter's September, a depiction of a burning World Trade Center Tower; and Malcolm Browne's 1963 photo of a self-immolating Vietnamese monk. Richter's canvas makes 9/11 seem like a hazy nightmare — as if we're watching the World Trade Center tragedy through a window that itself has been tinged with fire. And Browne's photo of a public suicide still astounds 50 years after it was taken — not just because we see the monk calmly aflame (half his face is waiting to be engulfed), but because we see a phalanx of people watching the monk burn to death on a Saigon street. Are they passive observers, like spectators at an athletic event, or are they respecting the wishes of a Buddhist figure who wanted to die on his own terms in a gruesome political protest?

Juxtaposed side by side on Fraenkel's western wall, September and Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc are, by themselves, worth the visit. Add in the other images from "The Unphotographable," and the exhibit ponders a spectrum of subjects inducing everything from a cringe to a smile.

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Jonathan Curiel

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