Last fall the Covington Arts Center moved from its Seventh Street space to the corner of Pike and Madison. It was just a block but the difference is gargantuan. Overseen by Cate Becker, the gallery vacated a huge space that could easily accommodate 100 pieces. I’d also describe it as bordering on unmanageable, “bordering” because some how Becker and the curators of exhibitions there always made it work, even figuring out a way to hang art on a tile wall.
Covington Arts’ new home is a storefront gallery that is intimate, which is not a euphemism in my mind, for small. It’s a good space for “On the Road and Into the Woods,” a title that is at once straightforward and poetic. It features two self-taught photographers: Lisa Sullivan and Kimberly Meadows. The former is “on the road” and the latter goes “into the woods.”
As I said, the 46-year-old Sullivan is self-taught. She remembers receiving a Polaroid camera in the seventh- or eighth-grade and was “hooked from then on.” In 2008 or 2009, she became serious when she was selected for the annual Capture Cincinnati photography contest, which is juried by the general public.
Under the name Betty Photography, a moniker honoring her beloved late grandmother, she specializes in “Portraits with a Twist,” but she “love(s) photographing random things and out-of-the-way places. My addiction to road tripping has provided plenty of material!” It’s this group of digital color prints that dominates this exhibition. However, she has also included a few of those “portraits with a twist,” such as Tools of the Trade for the Americana/folk band Buffalo Wabs & the Price Hill Hustle. In the desolate landscape of an abandoned railroad yard, she’s arranged a stool and snare drum draped in chains with a tambourine on the ground, echoing the circles of the stool and drum. An old valise – Samsonite? — is placed to the side signifying the life on the road. Those chains don’t hold the band down.
It’s Sullivan’s road tripping that has produced the strongest work on view. In Curving Dusk, a two-lane road disappears into the night. Dark clouds squeeze out the remaining bit of blue sky. Only the roof of a barn is visible, the rest of the structure lost in darkness. Illuminated by a car’s headlights, only half of a yellow sign cautioning drivers about that curve ahead can be seen.
Curving Dusk could be a record of what Sullivan saw, but she has enhanced the Romantic mood by manipulating the color. “I heighten the colors during post-processing,” she explains. “And honestly it depends on the mood I’m in that day.” In Curving Dusk, she confesses that she “went overboard even for me, but I just loved the end result. The more that deep blue dusk popped, the more the sign popped.” The end result is mysterious and stunning.
The Road Less Traveled is one of a trio of digital prints from the “Traveling Series 1.” A two-lane blacktop stretches into the distance and disappears as it rounds a curve, the sweep of the road carrying the eye along. What makes this picture noteworthy is Sullivan’s ground level vantage point.
For the exhibition, the “Traveling Series 1” prints were framed in vintage frames that Sullivan found at Historic Frames in the Mohawk Building on Central Parkway. The “‘Traveling Series’ seemed the perfect fit for them,” she explains.
In the second of the series, Method of Transportation, a vintage VW Beetle, obviously the conveyance of a never seen driver, is front and center. It blocks the view of the modest house with a narrow chimney and tin roof. Farmhouse? Likely. Second home? No way.
The third in this group is Destination Unknown. Sullivan is again on the road but the focus is on a stand of leafless trees bordering the road at the moment the sky is shading from sunset to dusk, carmine to gray. With their slender trunks and arm-like branches, they seem ready to march and overwhelm the man-made cut through them.
Also an autodidact, the 37-year-old Meadows began her photographic career five years ago as a “creative outlet” from the stresses of being a stay-at-home mom with two children, one who has special needs. After trying other genres (“I just wasn’t feeling it.”), she settled on what she calls “glamour portraiture.” A quick look at her website, www.kimberlymeadowsphoto.com, illustrates what she means. Her clients are treated to a professional hair and make-up makeover transforming them from “already beautiful inside and out to HOLY COW beautiful.” She loves “making a woman feel sexy, beautiful, and amazing.”
Also on her website are her “Boudoir Photos” where models who need no makeover are posed provocatively, even lasciviously in lingerie worthy of Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood. They recall E. J. Bellocque’s photographs of prostitutes shot in an upscale brothel in New Orleans’ infamous red-light district Storyville. Working in the first two decades of the 20th century, he posed the ladies of the bordello in mostly in matter-of-fact poses.
What’s on view in Covington are Meadows’ “Nature Nudes.” She has taken her flawless models from the boudoir into the woods and a quarry to create enigmatic tableaux starring these perfect creatures rendered in luminous black-and-white digital prints. Although Meadows only credits a Dayton, Ohio, photographer Gary Mitchell for inspiring her “to begin the journey into Fine Art Nudes,” there are comparisons to be made with earlier photographers; Alfred Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and other Pictorialists come to mind off the top of my head.
In Slumber, a nude lies on a rock ledge, its cragginess in counterpoint to her smooth body that gleams like highly polished marble. Her hair cascades over the ledge. One might think Meadows intended this woman to be an idealized everywoman but her varnished nails belong to a specific woman, as does the hourglass tattoo on her shoulder. Serendipitously (?) it suggests time passing and past.
Even as Meadows’ work evokes earlier photographers, for me there’s an odder connection to be made: Gemini and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Meadows’ photo two women, as attenuated as Cranach’s figures, stand in contrapposto, separated by the massive roots of an ancient tree, which functions almost like a third character. Their almost impossibly long arms reach up and hands meet palm-to-palm. Facing away from each other, they both gaze off into the distance. There is certainly a story to be told here.
Covington Arts’ new home is just the right place to view the work of these two photographers, just large enough to mentally go “Off the Road and Into the Woods.”
–Karen S. Chambers