Breaking Convention

David Rosenthal has high hopes for his newly opened Prairie Gallery

Feb 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

David Rosenthal, talking in the bare-bones middle room of his new Northside gallery, says, “I’m hoping to provide a place where photography can be done by lots of people and can reach into different areas in lots of different ways.”

Rosenthal’s first show, the current Happy Valley or Hell-Town, signals that while photography might well become his primary focus, his gallery will not be limited to it. This current show combines the angular grace of sculptor Voss Finn’s repurposed industrial flotsam with Samantha Johnson’s multimedia work — photographs produced on printmaking paper and sewn together into collages — reflecting industrial decline along Spring Grove Avenue. Both shows are up through March 13.

Asked why he’s named this second-story space on a busy block of Hamilton Avenue “Prairie,” Rosenthal says he likes the sound of it.

“It suggests opportunity, openness, the United States,” he says. “I think the arts crack society’s barriers. They voice social issues and break out of convention.”

Photography is a primary, if not exclusive, interest for Rosenthal, 43, an adjunct professor of photography at UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. The gallery is a new professional element in a career that has switched tracks more than once. After practicing law, he left that field to become a photographer and later moved into teaching the subject.

Rosenthal, the son of arts patrons Lois and Richard Rosenthal, grew up in a household where the arts were important.

“My parents first collected outsider art from all over the world and also contemporary art," he says. "But music, literature, all the arts, matter to them.”

In the course of his work Rosenthal has previously curated shows, but it’s new to have his own space. Northside seemed like a good location.

“I live in Clifton, so I’m close,” he says. “But I think Northside is one of the few, successfully or not, integrated areas of the city. There’s an interesting mix of people racially, economically and otherwise.”

Coming up next is a show that’s a natural for a photographer to dream up: Wedding Day.

“The experience of a wedding is usually pretty different from what you see in the wedding album,” he says, laughing. “I think it’s definitely a show for photographers.”

Or for anybody who has ever gotten married?

“Yes,” he says. “I’m hoping it touches that nerve in everybody who has gotten married or photographed one. Now so many are taking pictures, especially at weddings, those pictures of what happened are floating out there but they don’t go in the album. The professional photographer has certain responsibilities.”

Those responsibilities will not shape Prairie’s show, Rosenthal implies. Wedding Day, promoted by Rosenthal as “the best never-seen photographs by professional photographers,” will open March 20.

The following exhibition, opening in late May, will be called Camera Obscura. I confess to Rosenthal that its description at is not clear to me. How will it work?

“I’m not sure myself,” Rosenthal admits. “That’s part of what I like about having those kinds of shows here. Not all will be like that, of course, but this one will have built in surprises for me as well. Five artists have been asked to do something with the camera obscura. I’ll build an actual, room-sized camera obscura into the front space. Some will use it for straightforward images, I think. Others will do other things. … I don’t know exactly what they’ll be — video, performance — I probably won’t know until a week or two before the opening.”

Rosenthal smiles, pleased with the project’s ambiguity.

Also on his schedule, with its own built-in ambiguity, is Kids View: The Millcreek Expedition, to grow out of a workshop this spring for a show in September. Working in collaboration with Happen, Inc., an art-oriented program for youngsters, and the Millcreek Restoration Project, Prairie will encourage and assist Northside students in exploring the creek through photography.

Rosenthal plans to offer photography classes in addition to mounting exhibitions at Prairie. Fallout from the switch to digital photography isn’t over yet, and he will provide a “state-of-the-art wet darkroom” as well as digital photo lab and a lighting studio. Rosenthal thinks there still are things to be learned from working with film, although the convenience and immediacy of digital photography can’t be discounted.

The physical space of Prairie Gallery is deliberately unassuming. A narrow flight of stairs leads to the second floor, which is separated into two main areas by a crisp white zigzag wall that stops a couple of feet short of the ceiling. Long windows overlooking the street are unobstructed. Darkroom and photo lab are at the rear.

The place has a sense of anticipation, a feeling that things will be happening here. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

PRAIRIE GALLERY’s (4035 Hamilton Ave., Northside) regular hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.