Art review: Photographs arrest grief in Stephanie Dowda’s solo show

“Raised Ethereal Thing, Evoco,” appears in the solo show “Traces” by Stephanie Dowda at Whitespace Gallery.

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“Raised Ethereal Thing, Evoco,” appears in the solo show “Traces” by Stephanie Dowda at Whitespace Gallery.

Psychology-inflected places are photographer Stephanie Dowda's métier in a solo show of black-and-white images at Whitespace Gallery.

What are these spaces, you wonder, these wooden barns, streams, forests and fields, and what is their significance for the photographer? The images themselves are bisected by white lines — cross-hatchings, webs and rays — overlaid on Dowda’s landscapes. Like a visual commentary, those lines remind us that these images are not simple landscapes but places mediated by a point of view.

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“I Can See You When I Close My Eyes, 33 Marks,” by Stephanie Dowda.

“I Can See You When I Close My Eyes, 33 Marks,” by Stephanie Dowda.

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“I Can See You When I Close My Eyes, 33 Marks,” by Stephanie Dowda.

In the large black-and-white image “Longest Day of Light,” a stand of trees and a river beyond are compromised — made more than a straightforward landscape — by the white lines radiating over the image like spokes of a bicycle wheel. Those strange lines become a reminder of a human presence in the space, compromising and shaping the view.

In Dowda’s case, the implication is that her view is shaped by grief. As she notes in an artist’s statement accompanying “Traces,” her images mark “different moments in time in which I experienced the progression of cancer, illness and eventual death of my mother. The marks are struggles, realizations, and physical traces of the power of loss in our lives.”

A series of seven small 10-by-10-inch works at the gallery entrance picture a view of other natural places — a pond, a field — seen through a black frame, like looking out at the landscape from a dark room. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for the special tunnel vision and altered way of seeing the world that grief can bring.

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Stephanie Dowda’s “Ribbon at a Time, Evoco.”

Stephanie Dowda’s “Ribbon at a Time, Evoco.”

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Stephanie Dowda’s “Ribbon at a Time, Evoco.”

While much of the work in “Traces” has a lonely, mournful tone, other work pulsates with an uncanny, extraterrestrial energy. Things take a more supernatural turn in the gallery’s second room, which moves away from the despairing attitude, and into something more experimental, and more metaphysical. If some of Dowda’s work is bound to the earth and to lived experience, then these other works suggest something more indistinct, a contemplation of a reality beyond the lived and seen.

In Whitespace’s larger gallery room, Dowda privileges large unframed images, curling at the edges in some cases like documents hastily, feverishly assembled. Some of those black-and-white photographs feature landscapes, and others feature abstract shapes resembling a flickering candle flame or white-hot ray of light emerging from the darkness like evidence of some paranormal activity. Those images are accompanied by polished hand-blown black glass discs placed on top of or behind the images like flying saucers or portals to some other space.

The eerie mood of these images paired with those glossy black objects derives in part from their making using a Claude glass, a hand-held convex mirror painted black often called a “black mirror.” Those 18th-century devices were used by landscape painters to arrange the landscape into a more painterly view. But the Claude glass was also used as a tool for connecting with the spirit world.

In Dowda’s hands, the Claude glass becomes a metaphor for the distorting effects of subjectivity, how places and things can change and morph but also a means of summoning up some connection to the artist’s mother.

If much of “Traces” can feel opaque and hard to decipher, there are also many promising tangents in this show that may be most effective as a mood piece.


ART REVIEW

“Traces”

Through Feb. 11. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Free. Whitespace Gallery, 814 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 404-688-1892, www.whitespace814.com.

Bottom line: Effectively setting a mood, this photo show looks through a lens darkly at the natural world.