Shifting focus: Abstract photography twists the lens

Wolfgang Tillmans, German, b. 1968, "Paper Drop (rainbow)," 2006 C-print, edition 3/3, 20 x 24 inches, 2007.073 Glenstone, © Wolfgang Tillmans.
Wolfgang Tillmans, German, b. 1968, "Paper Drop (rainbow)," 2006 C-print, edition 3/3, 20 x 24 inches, 2007.073 Glenstone, © Wolfgang Tillmans.

"Painting is dead," artist Paul Delaroche supposedly declared upon the invention of the daguerreotype photograph in the 19th century. Suddenly, painting as a means for representing reality seemed inadequate compared to photography's ability to document the world.

Nothing like a century's passing to reverse thinking. By the 1980s, it was photographers who began to reject the strictures of documentation in order to create artworks that had more in common with mid-20th century abstract painting and sculpture than with realistic representation. A small collection of these groundbreaking pieces is currently on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum in the exhibition, "Abstract Photography: Selections from Glenstone."

The photographers represented- among them Louise Lawler, Wolfgang Tillmans, Vik Mu±iz, and William Wegman- offer a range of aesthetic approaches, but the works displayed share a common denominator: the images force viewers to puzzle over what they're seeing. Audiences expect photographs to "tell the truth," and each artist plays with this conditioned response by making "the truth" elusive and open to interpretation.

Several artists give a wink and a nudge to earlier, realistic art photography. For instance, Vik Mu±iz's "Equivalents" is a direct response to Alfred Steigletz's series of the same name. Whereas Steigletz famously shot a variety of clouds, Mu±iz offers cloud-like images of cottony fluff humorously sculpted into recognizable forms- a man rowing a boat, a pig, DŒrer's iconic praying hands, etc.

Mu±iz also toys with viewers' perceptions in his large "Pictures of Dust" diptych, which at first glance appears to be a straightforward split photograph of a Barry Le Va abstract sculpture. In fact, Mu±iz has photographed a drawing he made of La Va's sculpture using sweepings from the museum floor around the piece. Feathers, dust bunnies and other detritus are clearly visible in Mu±iz's work upon closer examination.

Other "Abstract Photography" artists actively play with the two-dimensional nature of photographs by introducing sculptural elements. In "Person (Orange): With Laundry, Clothespins and Lines," John Baldessari shifts viewers' experience of a large color image of clothes drying on a line by placing a raised orange silhouette of a woman in the foreground. And in the compelling "in this place where we meet," John Hodges cuts and curls the photograph itself to recreate the foliage of a tree.

All the image-makers in "Abstract Photography" take the dictum, "Seeing is believing" and turn it upside down and sideways- sometimes quite literally.

"Abstract Photography: Selections from Glenstone" is on view through January 3 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.