"Abstract 3," inkjet print by Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest. Part of the "Abstract Photography" exhibit at the Union of Maine Visual Artists. (Courtesy UMVA)
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While we wait for the all-clear signal to return to galleries and museums, there is always a lot of art to be seen virtually.

During February, for example, the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery blog site features an online exhibition, “Abstract Photography.”

Curated by Greg Mason Burns, “Abstract Photography” shows the work of nine UMVA members: Mark Barnette, Jim Kelly, Lesley MacVane, CE Morse, John Ripton, Ann Tracy, Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest, Dave Wade, and Burns. Only Burns, Kelly, and Morse focus primarily on abstract photography; most of the others are fine art and documentary photographers experimenting with the medium.

John Ripton’s untitled photography on archival paper. (Courtesy UMVA)

What Burns asked for from his colleagues was “non-objective photography, or photography where it wasn’t immediately obvious what the photograph was of.”

“Abstract Photography” begs the question of what “photography” means. Etymologically, photography means “drawing with light.” Traditionally it refers to making a two-dimensional mechanical impression of a much larger three-dimensional external reality – but we gave up decades ago on the quaint idea that a photograph captured “the truth,” unless the real world is two-dimensional, miniature, and monocular.

These days, there is a lot of digital art that does not even involve the use of a camera, but Burns specified, “Yes, it had to be a photo, and all of these are.”

Some are enhanced by changing the perspective tools of the camera itself, he said (i.e., not really digitally altered much, if at all, by Barnette, Morse, and Ripton). Some are digitally altered in software (Burns, Wade, Tracy, MacVane), and some are both digitally and/or physically altered (van Voorst van Beest’s change in block colors with lines added, and Kelly’s drawing on printed photos and then taking new photos).

“Spot On,” mixed media by Jim Kelly. (Courtesy Union of Maine Visual Artists)

Burns’ volcanic photos are wildly colorful images of daubs of paint that have been photographed and manipulated.

Ripton’s photographs are among the easiest to understand as he simply uses focus and frame to isolate abstracted elements of objects. 

My favorites in the show are Kelly’s mixed-media pieces that involve drawing and writing on photos and van Voorst van Beest’s inkjet prints that have an underlayer of landscape with computer-generated drawing on them.  

Once you figure out what an image is (as in how it might have been made), you can then start wrestling with what it wants to be.

“Abstract Photography” was conceived as an in-gallery show pre-COVID-19, so I assume most of the artists think of the real end-product of their creative process as a photographic print. But they are being seen on computer screens, which entirely changes what they are. Is a virtual representation of a photograph a photograph? And there is always the question of whether a photograph wants to live on the wall, in a book, or on a screen.

The photographs in the “Abstract Photography” exhibition are thought-provoking. Prints are on sale for between $125 and $750. 

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

You can see examples of “Abstract Photography” in the front windows of the Portland Media Center at 516 Congress St., and the whole show online at https://bit.ly/2Z9mqUp.

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