Ethereal Experimentation

Upcoming Weston exhibits feature two bold approaches to photography

Mar 26, 2014 at 8:04 am
click to enlarge Anita Douthat and Charles Woodman
Anita Douthat and Charles Woodman


hile Anita Douthat and Charles Woodman both create photography-based or light-based art, their approaches are dramatically different. So, too, is their work — except for a common denominator. Both work in areas that could be called experimental, and both painstakingly make ethereal images of transfixing and even transcendent beauty. 

Beginning Friday, these two veteran and highly regarded Cincinnati artists will be having shows — Douthat’s Under the Sun and Woodman’s Passages — at Downtown’s Weston Art Gallery. (A third artist, Jason Tanner Young of Athens, Ohio, will also have an exhibit of sculpture, Outliers.) 

Woodman uses the latest in digital technology for video “landscapes,” some using more than one screen. Six works will be in the Weston gallery show — one, “Table of Elements,” uses two monitors (and discreet sound) to create sequences of 13 paired, changing nature images that play out over two and a half hours. 

“I’m trying to create the illusion of this going on forever,” says Woodman, who teaches electronic art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).

“My work on video is constantly changing,” he says. “It reached a certain point for me about eight years ago where video became really plastic, easy to work with, and I could do a lot of things I wanted to do with it. It was a liberating experience but I’m not so interested in what I can do technologically. I’m more interested in using technology to express some other ideas.”

Douthat, on the other hand, doesn’t even use a camera, much less digital video — sunlight is her lens for creating photograms, a variation of photography that dates to the 19th century and was championed in the 20th century by avant-gardist Man Ray.

She places found objects, chosen for their transparent or opaque qualities, atop photosensitive paper and lets the light burn through to create silhouette-like imagery. Later, the paper is chemically gold-toned — it gets a purplish color — and fixed for permanence. 

A native of Alexandria, Ky., and the associate director at the Carl Solway Gallery, Douthat studied photography at Chicago’s Institute of Design and the University of New Mexico. She slowly moved toward making photograms afterward, as work took her to different cities and she didn’t have darkrooms easily available.

“A friend gave me some printing-out paper, which has been around at least since the 19th century and is sensitive to sunlight,” she says. “You make exposures in the sun. You can store your paper and later on you tone it and fix it and you have it. You actually see your exposure happening rather than seeing it in a developer later on, so it has a wonderful immediate result. I think working with the shadows of things rather than (showing) the surface of things was something I was really drawn to.” 

Douthat’s photograms can be startling in their size. Especially so are works from her Alterations series — life-size images that capture the essence and aura of women’s apparel, including wedding dresses. 

The Weston show will feature those as well as pieces from her more abstract Candelabras for Constantin series. Separately and individually, her photograms — especially the Alterations ones — constitute a ghostly but gorgeous, X-ray-like, almost-narrative of everyday life. What is missing is the human body; the absence of people haunts.

“There were personal reasons that made the shadow very appealing to me in the late 1980s,” she says. “I had an accident — broke my shoulder — and my mother was diagnosed with cancer the same year. The whole idea of how fragile life is dovetailed very much with the idea of working with shadow. I think I’m still just really drawn to the presence of absence. It’s really important to me.” 

Woodman was born in Boulder, Colo., and comes from an important American artistic family. His mother is acclaimed ceramicist Betty Woodman; his father George is an artist and retired art professor; and his sister Francesca’s reputation as a black-and-white fine art photographer has grown exponentially since her suicide in 1981. The family was the subject of a documentary, The Woodmans, which aired last year on PBS.

Woodman got interested in electronic art — film and video production — early and studied at Ripon College, Antioch College and the University of Oklahoma. He worked in related fields, made what he calls “highly processed” video and began teaching. He’s been at DAAP about 15 years. Listening to him tell of his journey through the ever-changing world of video art, from VHS tapes to today’s flash drives, is like taking a road trip across America where the eras change with the scenery.

In recent years, he’s concentrated on landscapes. “Landscapes are a very good thing to capture in a high resolution,” Woodman says. “I want to make something beautiful, and I am better able to do that with new technology. I’m still doing a lot of processing, but it’s subtler. And some work I’ve done lately has very little processing. It’s more about pure image and how it is edited. 

“ 'Table of Elements' is not really manipulating in any obvious way. It’s just an attempt to enhance the reality.” (And, one should add, the beauty.)

Woodman’s art also has another side, a much wilder one, and it will be on display at 4 p.m. April 13 during a free viDEO sAVant performance at downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel.  

“It’s the name I operate under for live performance, and I have a rotating cast of musical collaborators,” he says. “This group I’m playing with in Cincinnati is Lateral Thinking.”

Along with the three-person group, Woodman and Loraine Wible will project digitally stored images onto a screen. This audio-visual improvisation is like a high-tech version of an old-fashioned light show.

Woodman went to Rock concerts with light shows growing up in Boulder, Colo. “I remember seeing Quicksilver and being blown away by the blobs of light,” he says. 

While Douthat’s and Woodman’s finished art looks very different from each other, the impetus is the same. Both rely on past experiences, academic training and love for what they do.

ANITA DOUTHAT: UNDER THE SUN and CHARLES WOODMAN: PASSAGES open Friday and continue through June 8 at the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center downtown. More: