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Looking Awry
Debut Show Offers Moment To Consider What We Look For When We Look At Contemporary Photography
LIGHT FORMS: Sean Quinn's  "Into a New Millennium."


LIGHT FORMS: Sean Quinn's "Silver Canyons"

ILIGHT FORMS: Sean Quinn's "Silver Canyons" (top) and "Into a New Millennium."

Sean Quinn: The Nature of Building

Every street art festival has its plenitude of landscape photographers. If you visit these festivals often, or judge them to identify and award the most unorthodox, you will encounter countless similarities, matted, shrink-wrapped, and awaiting customers. There is something about an indigo blue Greek door, a sunset panorama of an exotic village, an intriguing geological formation, or the cavernous interior of a Gothic cathedral that people with cameras cannot resist. Hence, on behalf of sharing it further down the line, it becomes a photo. For many art buyers, too, this is what they need for that spot on the wall--a high-res souvenir of their own travels, or a big holy card for one they long to make.

When the camera was a new technology, explorers to wondrous outposts captured and transformed their exotic features into silvery salted paper or albumen print, a form of utter visual prestidigitation in itself. These early pioneers subsequently performed the great service of introducing wonders of the near and far to the uninitiated. Familiarity ultimately democratized their rarity while new color processing evolved a more realistic image. Now we find ourselves with digital processing and unlimited classlessness to access and discipline. It's not a bad development--it just makes for a huge playing field to consider when looking at photographs in an art gallery.

Sean Quinn's mixed array of digital prints comprising The Nature of Building at Gallery 211 compels you to think about what it is exactly that makes for a superlative photograph--what establishes some photoscapes as innovative amid the raft of oft seen landscapes in our present era of so much snapshot redundancy.

This is Quinn's premiere solo exhibition. His day-to-day profession is in architecture, the photographs here thus taken partly for his own inspiration. So he couldn't be faulted for snapping yet another shot of the Guggenheim's stacked reach into the blue sky over Broadway, or the majestic clerestory arches of a Gothic cathedral. He is seeking out affinities in the structural world and drawing conclusions about how man-made constructions relate to structures found in nature, an exercise that is bound to inform his chosen discipline. It's obviously something he wants to share.

Photographers such as 19th-century French civil engineer Felix Teynard first documented the architectural monuments of ancient civilizations for a greater understanding of his own profession's relationship to past architectural feats. From arduous travels along the Nile Valley he returned with images to influence and inform himself and his colleagues, publishing a travel album and setting a precedent that would locate his name in the history of photography. What he undertook was innovative on several fronts, and innovation is the yardstick we use to judge such accomplishments.

Quinn installed his show in collaboration with 211's gallery directors, Stacy and Jason Goscha, to be fairly inclusive. This means that there are few photos that might have better been left out to focus on Quinn's strongest, most visionary works. Mixed in with some of these less significant examples, Quinn supplies some exceptional evidence that unmanipulated photography that exploits real landscape for pure form can still be extraordinary. His large format works "Into a New Millennium," "Silver Canyon," "Dancing Cranes," and "Changing the Guard" all fit quite satisfactorily in that category.

"Silver Canyon"--not so much a silhouette with an aura as the others mentioned--offers more surface articulation, and it still contains the quality that Quinn manages best: where form holds dominion over its ambient surroundings. These arresting works force you to care about their subjects.

You may care about the other themes, too, but you don't necessarily care for them because the image leads you to. There is too much tourist specificity in some of these works. Like "Red Snow," for instance, which reminds me of a 1960s postcard of Bryce Canyon, Utah. While you can enlarge a photo, it's not always money well spent.

Using a series of nine very palatable little square images, also called "The Nature of Building," Quinn creates building blocks or aggregated perceptions on the wall. These are nice works that separately offer a window into the heart of things, abstracting from the obvious and honing in on a detail that carries a great deal of subliminal fortitude. "Number 9," also named "Washington, D.C.," is barely discernable ice breaking up on the Potomac in an enigmatic meandering pattern. It's much more fascinating to think of Washington that way, rather than as a nice bird's-eye view of a beautiful monument on a clear day.

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper