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Poor's Rich Photos

Nigel Poor
Orange With Guitar String: By refusing to idealize her photographic subjects, Nigel Poor undercuts any sense of nostalgia.



A San Francisco artist carves organic images with light

By Ann Elliott Sherman

NIGEL POOR breathes renewed significance into the phrase "still life," creating photographs that spotlight the strange beauty and mystery inherent in the mutability of all things organic.

Rather than capturing the evanescent peak of perfection typically celebrated in the genre, Poor is interested in what happens when the bloom is off the rose. Desiccated bulbs, leathering fruit, curling leaves, empty exoskeletons--objects on their way to becoming something else--are posed against dark backgrounds in contact prints that make each vein and stem seem carved with light.

In her works, postmodern concern with process comes full circle to meet up with poetic meaning. Poor's gold-toned chloride photographs are produced on special "printing-out" paper that must be put in strong sunlight for the image to appear. In this way, what is in part responsible for the pictures' intense luminosity is also linked to the decay of the plants and creatures that are their subjects.

Though she uses a 19-century technique (notably employed by pioneer French photographer Eugène Atget), Poor's old-fashioned sun prints subvert their own nostalgia by refusing to idealize the object's past. Instead, these photographs serve as window boxes of natural history in the making--or, as the artist puts it, "the preservation of breath on a mirror."

As if to answer an instinct to avoid any connection between our own mortality and the metamorphoses of her nonhuman subjects, Poor occasionally stages or lights certain objects so as to underscore a biomorphology they share with female anatomy.

In Pear With Morpho Pins, Poor splits an aging Bosc pear in half vertically and pins it back together, leaving a narrow gap between the two sides. (The image also gives rise to visceral associations with certain vestiges of childbirth. Ouch.)

A decidedly clitoral ridge running down the crest of a luminescent crab shell in Pear With Horseshoe Crabs is juxtaposed with a luscious pear, budding twigs and dried heart-shaped leaves. The photograph is so beautifully composed, one can respond to it simply on the aesthetic level. But the contrast between empty, thorny husk and juicy fruit, between one foliage's beginnings and another's withering, is too deliberate for a merely formal exercise. The pervasive yet unsentimentally elegiac undercurrent embraces life and death as two sides of the same coin.

Poor's matter-of-fact approach to the process of physical decay--indeed, her transformation of it into a kind of transcendent beauty--dovetails with one photographic tradition: the "here it is" identity of perception with objective fact.

But there is also a strong vein of symbolism that she acknowledges as "the subconscious seeping out in a miniature landscape." This symbolism is reminiscent of Alfred Stieglitz's exploration of "equivalence": the congruity of the forms of the visible world with emotional essence, supplying the invisible with a photographable substance.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Poor chooses to work in gold-chloride on printing-out paper, as did Atget. She shares with Atget an open responsiveness to the surprising yet natural coherence of the world, which speaks for itself and for the artist.

IN HER more recent work, Poor pares down the still life to its elements, especially in the Carbuncle series, which consists of triptychs of single objects rising out a velvety darkness.

Like Tina Modotti and Robert Mapplethorpe before her, Poor takes elegant formalism into the realm of sociosexual commentary. Is that a yogurt lid or a diaphragm holding a fortune-cookie paper slip inscribed with the series title that separates an unjoined necklace of spines and a broken strand of pearls (intuited as references to genetic codes at the same time that they are simply gorgeous to see)?

Just look at #4--a rotten flower bulb with a hole in its center, a stretched wire coil, a barren, dried-out grape stem--and try not to be reminded of the disquieting intersection between the personal and political aspects of female fertility.

Poor's "dark little places" exalt the commonplace but sidestep the art-for-art's-sake distancing of modernism; they relentlessly examine the union of life and death (without denying either) that gives the everyday its real meaning.

Poor shuffles the antiquated with the contemporary in an aesthetic focused on the transcendent nature of time and matter. She's the artistic soulmate of contemporary physicists who resurrect debunked geometries and mathematical constructs to explain anew how the universe works.


Between the Elements: Photographs by Nigel Poor runs through May 11 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose (408/271-6840).

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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