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Shouts and Whispers 

Photographer Doug Deneen moves out of the studio and into the field

In his recent series of photos, on view at the Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, Doug Deneen breaks new ground, at least in relation to his previous work-- photographed collages, mostly composed of sharp color studies of semi-abstract objects---and eschews his trademark still-lifes for images of the natural world captured in quiet moments of light and color equilibrium.

Since the late '80s, Deneen has been working in a light-controlled studio, creating vivid high-contrast compositions on large-format Cibachrome prints, assembling his subject matter from randomly selected odds and ends: flower parts and scraps of wood, glassware and plastic bits, household utensils and melted wax pieced together in small groupings against moody, out-of-focus color fields. In the least successful of those arrangements, he dabbled in paradoxical versions of decorative poster work--the melted wax creating an unintentional reminder of process and therefore negating abstraction. But in more significant pieces, Deneen amplified hidden vocal qualities in the materials themselves and in the symphonic arrangements he conducted.

While much of that work called to mind Rauschenberg- or Jasper Johns-era collage studies modernized slightly by the use of bubble wrap and recognizable plastic detritus, his new series takes aim at pre-existing form and color compositions, reversing the human desire to create patterns by mimicking those we see consciously or unconsciously in nature. Embracing the inability of a photographer to fully control natural settings, Deneen now forces himself to relinquish large doses of artifice in an attempt to reveal what is already hidden within the subject. Or, as he puts it in his artist's statement, he's "bullying chaos out of order."

In doing so, he finds a voice: The technical prowess developed in the studio while coaxing inaudible qualities from his subject matter has developed into an ability to make them sing. Once out of the studio and into the world, surprises inevitably occur. Of his foray into candid photography, Deneen says, "It's a process less like collage and more like--hmmm, photography--second nature to most photographers, radical for me. Just look, don't touch." The results are startling in their lack of contrivance, largely due to the vibrant hues he finds in familiar subjects that you may have assumed were generally toneless. More than in his previous works and possibly due to the unpredictability of the subject matter, the forms and compositions that Deneen moves in and out of focus congregate in a way that subtly implies sound and movement. "I'm still trying to capture beauty in the unexpected," he admits. His aptly titled new series, Whispering Frenzy, does just that.

There are several framed groupings displayed in Craven Allen's basement gallery, with triptychs and diptychs separated by solo pieces, simply framed in black or white mats and metal frames. A handbill explains Deneen's new direction: "There's nothing mundane about the ordinary if you really look." The title piece proves this point well enough, with crisscrossing blades of grass that expand outward from their blooming tips, creating numerous depths of field in a wide range of clarity. The composition is captured during a light breeze that's nearly audible as it moves through the individual wisps, yet the most affecting element of this and many of the other photos is the brilliance of color caught at just the right moment of sunlight and shadow balance. Granted, Cibachrome prints are known for intense saturated color capabilities, but the tone has to be there before it can be revealed on film. It's surprising to see so many purples and oranges linked together by pinkish reds in the negative space between the green blades of grass, because there are no flowers providing these hues--only light and shadow play. It's there nonetheless, a full spectrum of colors that mingle in the air between forms. As the handbill promises, there is definitely nothing mundane about this ordinary scene.

In "Fiddleheads Where Rapids Calm," unfurling orange sprouts atop yellow-green stalks stretch from a blurred creek bed against a rich indigo backround. The velvety blue tone of the rapids in the distance makes the yellow of the fiddleheads pop like firecrackers, and yet the image remains somehow soothing, cool and intimate. As in many of the compositions, the camera is placed right down into the subject matter, creating a distorted sense of scale reminiscent of laproscopic photography seen in films like Microcosmos. Deneen seems to be inviting his viewers along into the miniature worlds of wonder he discovers, prodding them to look under rocks, through leaves, and past the traditional vistas. Once you are there, the rewards abound in crisp, microscopic details.

In "Lingering Leaves," a nearly grainless close-up of dead brown leaves suspended in an S-shape among cork-colored reeds, the surprises continue. In the tiny rotting spaces of the dried leaves, refracting sunlight creates vivid red transparencies in abstract shapes so small you could easily overlook them even at this scale. The longer you consider the brown of the leaves, the more you notice purplish blacks and deep magentas in their shaded folds. From across the room, this photograph contains about three or so earth tones, but up close you may find yourself marveling at dozens of primary and secondary colors, hidden within the browns.

In a few of the photographs, Deneen breaks his own rule and touches, assembling bits of found treasures into compositions that remain in the natural habitats in which he finds the objects. Some of these are very strong works that utilize the best of both control and abandon that sculptor-photographers such as Andrew Goldsworthy have helped to bring to the forefront of modern art. Like Goldsworthy, Deneen carefully selects his assemblage materials, taking into consideration contrasting color, form and texture. In "Can't Relax as Crashing Waves Inch Closer," a red plastic strip arching over a black bit of mysterious seashore debris and an orange length of frayed plastic roping each stand post-like out of the sand. Again the scale is exaggerated, so that individual grains of sand appear as translucent pebbles, their orange and yellow hues balanced perfectly by a slice of cobalt blue sky in the upper right corner of the frame.

Some of the photographs included in the exhibition seem--though technically accomplished in their own right--completely out of synch with these indigenous color studies. Two male nudes and a store window mannequin photo feel somewhat intrusive next to the others, largely because of the presence of human form where it doesn't seem possible in relation to scale and subject matter. In addition, a couple of the documented assemblages call to mind process again, and disrupt otherwise interesting compositions. These are minor indiscretions though, and as a whole, Whispering Frenzy marks a fascinating new direction for Deneen. He has moved gracefully from the cacophony of his previous collages to quieter, softer images that unfold slowly before your eyes and resonate in ways that make you want to look and listen a little longer. EndBlock

  • Doug Deneen takes his photographic eye out of the studio and into the field.

More by Todd Fjelsted


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