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Freeze Frame

Leah Sobsey's solarized photographs highlight a group exhibition at Carrboro's Sizl gallery



The deeper into Sizl Gallery's new exhibition you go, the better it gets. The current show features Cathy Kiffney's ceramics up front and Tama Hochbaum's photography in the middle, but it's with the photographs of Leah Sobsey in the rear gallery where visitors will experience a nearly palpable moment of confrontation with the work.

Kiffney, whose ceramic sculpture "Bird Butterfly and Flower Black Crackle Fan" appeared in the New Member exhibition at Raleigh's Artspace in January, displays that work and many others like it at the front of the gallery. For subject matter, Kiffney favors trees, horses, birds, flowers and moons painted in greens, blues and yellows. Her work is basically decorative, so it's not surprising that her resume lists work in collections at hospitals, banks, hotels and businesses in Research Triangle Park.

The second artist, photographer Tama Hochbaum, writes in her artist's statement that her work in this show is "documenting my world over the last year or so." The photos are primarily silver gelatin prints taken in New York, Italy and California. For the most part, the pieces are arty tourist photographs, one of them a shot of the World Trade Center, in which we see the wing of the airplane from which the photo was taken. Other subjects include the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Chrysler building, but because Hochbaum doesn't recontextualize these icons--even though she sometimes uses a collage format--memories of family slide shows come unfortunately to mind.

Because almost everyone has seen these familiar buildings in person or on film many times, Hochbaum could use a variety of simple techniques to imply something about the perception of them. She could make them more or less foreboding than they actually are with shadow and light, or diminish their size or significance with framing, focus or angle. Empire, Andy Warhol's eight-hour film of the Empire State Building, comes to mind as a piece that reconfigured the iconography a major New York building.

One of Hochbaum's color photos suggests where she could go with her work. "Tourists at Pisa" takes as its subject bright-shirted vacationers on a green lawn. Its washed-out colors and lack of focus imply a self-awareness on the artist's part of the touristy quality of her work. Hochbaum contexualizes this photograph with color and light so it has less to do with its subject, and more to do with what will happen when it's confronted by the viewer.

The defining moment of any work happens at this point, when the viewer and the work interact. Judging from her work, Leah Sobsey understands this, and the reward for your visit to Sizl comes at the back of the gallery with Sobsey's new photographs.

Sizl is exhibiting two series by Sobsey. On the right is a series of color photographs whose compositions are made up mostly of windows, or light and shadows created by windows. Some of these photos work quite well, especially those in which it's not clear what originally caught Sobsey's attention in the composition, as the main objects are pushed to the edges and cropped. The centers of the better photographs are pools of darkness or flickers of light on inconsequential patches of wall or carpet.

Eleven solarized photos printed by Sobsey onto mirrors of varying size hang on three walls in the rear nook. Like fellow solarizer Man Ray, Sobsey uses the process to alter (and sometimes negate) the texture of the light and outlines in her work. In her artist's statement, she writes that the solarization process she employs "mimics the patina that occurs when aged photographs begin to break down and oxidize." Sobsey is working mainly with family photographs and self-portraits, so her interest in generational loss--as she goes from an original image to a solarization of that image to a print on a mirror--is evident.

While these images don't have a ready-made relationship to the viewer, Sobsey doesn't fall into the trap of thinking that her unconventional process will make a worthwhile product on its own. Even though she uses a very self-conscious process, Sobsey doesn't indulge in commentary on the invention of the work. Rather than resting after coming up with an interesting process, she's followed through with a final product that seems distanced from the steps that were taken to complete it.

While these mirror-solarization photographs seem to have originally been very clear and directly lit, when they are superimposed onto reflective surfaces, they're tough to get a grip on. As photographs, they are moments frozen forever into a fixed composition. But the mirrors reflect events progressing in front of them, while also reflecting the viewer--who can't help but observe the passage of time reflected in the mirror while simultaneously viewing the photograph. When the viewer stands still in front of one of the portraits, his face will be superimposed onto the photograph, and his focus will gradually shift from himself to the photograph. When he moves again, his attention will shift back to the moving image. A gap in time is felt, like resuming action in a film after a freeze frame.

A simple trick, but it works magnificently. It contains a near-perfect progression of process to product to viewer, and forces the essential moment of confrontation like few local shows in recent memory. EndBlock

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