Culture- ART FEATURE- Rock of ages: Wylie gets stoned at SSG

Although I forget why I missed photographer William Wylie's 2002 University of Virginia Art Museum exhibition, "Stillwater," I remember the first time I saw an image from that black-and-white series. A jagged-edged fragment of cement rested cloud-like at the center of water that pooled and rippled through the frame, distorting reflections from an unseen riverbank. I probably stared slack-jawed for 20 minutes, completely seduced by the photograph's quiet power.

Wylie's most recent work, currently on view in the exhibition "Carrara," at Second Street Gallery, has the same capacity to transfix the viewer. Seeking to capture a sense of the history, culture, and landscape of the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, Wylie spent five years documenting the area with his large-format camera.

He eventually found that the stone blocks themselves, huge and raw after being excavated from the surrounding rock walls, conveyed the impact he sought. "Carrara" presents 10 oversized black-and-white portraits of these stones, supplemented by 10 color photographs of individual quarry laborers.

Wylie's genius is his ability to elucidate exquisite details that would go unnoticed without his careful camera placement and focused lens– the way the shape of a small crevice in a wall echoes the triangular hulk of a nearby block ("#01-83"), or how that block's illuminated upper surface becomes a bright white hypotenuse, contrasting with black ladders angled against the quarry's walls.

Always there are references to the transitional state of the stone, excised from its origins but not yet chiseled and crafted into its final form. Centering the blocks within their frames, Wylie attends to the rough edges and crumbling corners of the stone's refined surfaces, even as he points to the human hand of industry– straps, supports, and railings. Everywhere texture subtly reveals context.

Wylie infuses his figureless block images with a sense of nostalgia; at first glance they could almost be mistaken for blow-ups of 19th century daguerreotypes. In contrast, Wylie portrays the quarry's modern workers in color, but the artistic approach is familiar– each worker stands unsmiling in the center of the frame, the texture of his clothing replacing the texture of a block's surface. In the human portraits, Wylie continues to play with echoing lines and illuminates details through color repetition (e.g. a vest's orange logo takes the eye to the safety orange of nearby equipment).

The color portraits of humans represent a departure for the landscape photographer, so it's no surprise that the strength of "Carrara" resides in the rocks, where Wylie enlivens the stones with light, leaving viewers spellbound. 

William Wylie's photographic exhibition, "Carrara," is on display at Second Street Gallery through October 28. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.


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