‘New Works: Jack Spencer’

Local Arts Reviews


"New Works: Jack Spencer"

Stephen L. Clark Gallery, through May 10

Unless you're face to face with one of Nashville-based photographer Jack Spencer's images, you're not seeing the full picture. Spencer, who has selections from the 2003 series "This Land" and from his ongoing "Apariciones" at the Stephen L. Clark Gallery, is such a maestro in the darkroom that the print he creates – the actual photo paper in its frame – is as much a part of the image as the subject matter.

After he has cut, creased, nicked, and possibly burned the paper, Spencer exposes it, then dips the black-and-white image in a selenium tone bath to add a coppery sepia hue to the light and shadows. After the whole process – and goodness knows, there's far more that goes on inside his laboratory than we are privy to – he has created the mysterious, almost shrouded look of a 19th-century, Old West silver tintype enlarged to at least 27 inches square.

Of course, the work Spencer does in the dark is never isolated from the work he does behind his medium format camera. He photographs in low light with long exposures and a soft focus, giving the work a rich, opaque mystery. Staring at them is like looking through the prism of a 1950s-era Coke bottle: thick and foggy but heavy enough to feel substantial.

And finally, the subject matter Spencer chooses also lends itself to the long ago and the almost forgotten. The images that make up "This Land" are of the lost highways, clapboard houses, tattered flags, and big skies of the American West and Midwest that seem to be slowly disappearing. Horses, South Dakota is almost an entire color field of pale brown shades of light with faint images of horses frozen in a staccato line across the middle of the image. Splotches of chemicals, coffee-stain like, have been left at the image's four corners to further affect the photo's age. The image could be mistaken for a decaying photo of Teddy Roosevelt's badlands near the turn of the last century if the art – frame, mat, print, and all – weren't so vibrant and deliberate as to make it very much alive right now.

Likewise, Spencer's ongoing series "Apariciones," which depicts various people and cultures of Mexico, seems to bring the ancient to life, even if in some instances it seems the person in the frame is flirting with the afterlife. Catarina, for example, is perhaps the most poignant image now on the wall at the Stephen L. Clark gallery. It is of a once-beautiful, white-haired old Mexican woman at the end of her life, with her eyes closed and the years of her age etched into deep lines in her forehead. The soft focus and sepia-toned veil covering the photograph lend the feeling that this woman is preparing to depart the earth. She clutches a piece of weathered wood as if to hold gently but without desperation onto her earthly life, though the lightness of her grip tells us she is no longer bound here and could just as easily and happily let the wood go and disappear into the great beyond.

Such is the experience of coming face to face with Jack Spencer's photography.

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New Works: Jack Spencer, This Land, Apariciones, Stephen L. Clark Gallery, Horses, South Dakota, Catarina

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