Two new shows at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts are a good pairing of opposites. On one floor are two series by Gohar Dashti, an Iranian photographer who juxtaposes the spare landscape of her country with peopled tableaux representing the disruptions and loss through years of turmoil. On another floor are seascapes by Sandra Gottlieb that are a meditative counterpoint to the emotionally charged works downstairs.
Dashti, in her mid-30s, works in series, and 16 photographs from two of them, "Iran" and "Stateless," are in this show, which runs through June 1. In "Iran" (2013), she uses the same setting — barren hills — as the backdrop for her stories. In all of them, people huddle together, their boundaries determined by a rug, furniture, a hole in the ground. Their faces register no expression, even during normally joyous moments such as a wedding or gathering on a slide.
"Stateless" (2015), too, uses a natural backdrop for scenarios but to greater dramatic effect. Huge rock formations loom over and around more staged gatherings of dead-faced participants. Two men hauling a palm tree by rope seem as futile as Fitzcarraldo portaging a steamship over a mountain. So do a group of men, women and children carrying water vessels in the arid desert. They walk toward a blanket that could be a shroud. While both series are purposefully artificial, "Stateless" seems more contrived. Michelangelo's Pieta, for example, is staged, as is an homage to Ingres' Odalisque, to what purpose I'm not sure, though the formations in the former suggest carved marble and in the latter the sensuous curves of the model.
One of Dashti's videos is included, a closeup of a white gauze pad that slowly absorbs "blood" until the video screen looks like one of Mark Rothko's saturated red canvases.
You learn a lot about a place when you look at it for 10 years. Or sometimes you just stop seeing it. Gottlieb never stopped seeing the Atlantic Ocean as it churned and calmed outside her beach house. Sixteen portraits of the sea through the seasons are love letters to it and also a study of viewpoint: how we see something change may be more about our changing perceptions than the thing itself.
Gottlieb works in color and black and white; some of the photographs are titled by season, others by vertical or horizontal format, probably to differentiate between the representational and the abstract. Waves are captured as whipped-cream froth and snowy spray; in one photo, the green ocean resembles a lush, mossy hill sprinkled with ice crystals.
Those she titles verticals or horizontals emphasize the division of color planes between sea and sky, and they are beautiful. The planes seem to be clear distinctions of color, but closer looks reveal the nuances created by sunlight. The sky in one, for example, seems to be a sheet of one-tone azure, but subtle gradations take it from lighter to darker, and the even darker ocean is separated from it by a patch of sunlight glimmering on the horizon. That same subtlety is seen in another with the added surprise and wit of a cumulous cloud that hovers above like an errant blimp.
Images such as these don't just happen; they require waiting and watching, understanding the rhythms and timing of nature. Gottlieb takes a similar deep look at flowers in 18 prints from the "City Tulips" series. They're the equivalent of botanical prints from earlier centuries with more color and closeups. One is a first cousin to Georgia O'Keeffe's famous red poppy. Gottlieb's works are on display through March 25.
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