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Art Review


Published January 26, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: "Natural Sights," black-and-white landscape photography by Jeff Clarke. Flynndog, Burlington. Through March 24.

ARTWORK:"Elk Lake, NY" by Jeff Clarke

Despite the title of Jeff Clarke's one-person exhibition, "Natural Sights," at the Flynndog, the Burlington photographer hasn't snapped typical "nature pics." His work embodies the spirit of a famous Henry David Thoreau quote, "It's not what you look at that matters; it's what you see." Clarke is an artist of the first magnitude who sees and shares eloquent passages of visual poetry among his natural sights.

He's also in total command of his craft. There are 51 flawless silver-gelatin black-and-white prints in the exhibition, each with rich gradations of value. Clarke's prints are probably made the old-fashioned way, without the assistance of laser printers and computer manipulation. Most are 10-by-20-inch panoramic images. Also, Clarke's lens was exclusively focused on views and vistas in Vermont and northern New York. By doing so he lets local denizens see our familiar region from a fresh point of view.

Few views are as familiar to Vermonters as looking past Juniper Island from the Burlington waterfront to admire the majestic Adirondacks. Clarke's "Juniper Island" seems to document a miracle in progress. A powerful sunbeam appears to dig into the lake, as if Jehovah has parted the heavens to sweep a mighty searchlight over Lake Champlain.

"North From Camel's Hump, Vermont" shows an inland expanse captured from the top of the mountain. Rolling summits filling the length of the shot seem to tumble toward a crenellated horizon. "North Hudson, New York" features a silhouetted crest of ridgelines at the lower portion of the piece, framing puffy cumulus clouds rushing above the hills.

Clarke is as adept with details as he is with vistas. "Gill Brook, New York" is a dynamic study of passing time in the guise of a stream. In the foreground is a craggy tree trunk, while the background is completely filled by the frothy grays. Is there metaphorical content to the image? Like an old person staring in silence at a busy street to see life's panoply advance, the crisp stillness of the old tree trunk appears to be silently observing the rapids.

While layers of subjective content can be read into the photographs, Clarke's language is essentially abstract. "Lake Ice" was shot directly downward at a patch of black ice. A white crack shoots across the ice like a bolt of lightning. Bubbles or foreign matter riddle the ice with white specks.

"Sand and Stone" is a lighter-valued abstract image. Beach sand channeled by wind and littered with pebbles abuts a large stone at the bottom of the frame. The depth of its visual field is the same as that of "Lake Ice." Both are basically flat patterns of light and dark. Another abstraction, "Beachhead," uses similar textures, but they are juxtaposed in a broad arc that sweeps more deeply into the picture plane.

Clarke handles space in several different ways throughout the exhibition. Some views seem endless, as in the works dominated by sky. Others have stronger figure-ground relationships and become more intimate - such as "Gill Brook, New York." Still others are primarily flat and frontal.

Although mountains and woods dominate "Natural Sights," equally strong compositions reflect the rural human character of northern New England and New York.

"Hay Rake" is like a frigid version of an Arthur Rothstein Dust Bowl photo. It shows a stark white field with an ancient farm implement at far right, frozen into the snow like a tractor being swallowed by desert.

Clarke communicates by revealing new aspects of the "natural sights" he has seen rather than restating them. Given the depth of the photographer's aesthetic perception, let's paraphrase Thoreau's most famous quote to say: Looking at Clarke's work matters.