Composite Trees and Road Grids
Published on the occasion of exhibition 01/11
in the room for paper.
10.5 x 8 in. softcover; 67 pp.,
26 color reproductions
$34.00 + applicable tax and shipping, available from the gallery
Foreward by George Lawson
Commentary by Amy White
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Putting It All Together, Tama Hochbaum's Composite Photography
— Introduction by George Lawson
We are releasing this updated version of Tama Hochbaum’s catalog to mark our first year anniversary for the gallery. Tama inaugurated the room for paper last October, along with Judith Belzer in the room for painting. I asked Tama to return and show her recent grid-based composite photographs, works she shoots for the most part from a moving car or while walking. This catalog comprises a reprint of the initial show along with the group from which the current exhibit is selected, and includes the original remarks by North Carolina artist and writer, Amy White.
At the time of the first printing I wrote how I’ve known Tama for a long time and have had a chance to follow the trajectory of her artistic development. I thought then that, for a number of reasons, it seemed fitting that she be the one to kick off the program and now, after a year of experiences watching the interplay between the room for painting and the room for paper, I feel even more strongly that this is so. Tama bridges the concerns of these two venues. She came to photography comparatively late in her career, after years of painting, and her values translate seamlessly into her new medium.
Tama’s pursuit with painting led her to explore complex planar overlays, and multiple perspectives incorporating a luminous palette. Along with more than a bit of the flavor of Cubism, the resulting paintings were reminiscent of that unhinged moment in Italy when the breakthroughs of the late Renaissance were about to tip into Mannerism, a transition that championed individuals, much as does our current phase. Tama’s paintings reminded me in their style of the exaggerated foreshortening of Tintoretto and the fluorescent color of Pontormo—wild, but not bad company.
When she switched to the camera, it seemed to have a grounding effect on her. She focused on her immediate family for subject matter and began to experiment with the low-tech constraints of pinhole photography, producing modest but haunting images. She had definitely found her medium. I recall in those days I couldn’t go for a simple walk with her without having to stop every three minutes while she zoned in on another subject. For all the success of her new-found passion, though, I found myself wondering just what had happened to the proto-cubist impulses of her years of painting.
The answer came when Tama discovered digital photography and the software-enabled license of post-production. By compositing her images, she once again found the layered complexity and ambiguity of space that had characterized the best of her painting, and in the series she showed last year, the trees, she managed something most of us would like to achieve: reaching back and pulling the chapters of our personal narrative into one integrated whole. With the more recent series exhibited here, the road grids, she completes the absorption of her cubist roots.
Rather than fracturing the image, the multiplicity of views in Tama’s work achieves, with slight shifts of light, angle and scale, a heightened clarity and coalescence in the consideration of her subject. Her realization of her motif has a crystalline, multi-faceted reveal about it that belies the soft focus—what I’ve come to describe as transfocus—of her means. The universal approachability she captured in her series concentrating on the archetype of the lone tree is extended and literally taken on the road in the current grids. These works are rich, at once slowly revealing and yet immediately accessible. I feel even more fortunate now than I did a year ago to be able to present Tama’s photography in a gallery that ostensibly concentrates on painting. She feels right at home.
View Finder, Tama Hochbaum's Composite Trees
— Amy White
Fade in: Tama Hochbaum is in her car, parked on Mt. Sinai Road in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has her laptop with her. Using the laptop’s built-in camera, she begins to gather digital fragments of the landscape she finds before her—cross sections of thick fog and dispersing mist, concrete slabs set into the incline of the land as steps, the angles and planes of a few modest houses, the curve and slope of a winding road. Oak, hickory and maple trees arch over a chain link fence and recede along the road into the distance.
What emerges from this reverie is a work called Mt. Sinai Road (2008), an accumulation of fractions of an equation that refuses to give us an even, round number. Instead, Hochbaum offers an open-ended sequence in which the eye continually moves in and among an amalgam of planar statements, an unspoken assertion that what’s available to us within our visual field can never be reduced to a single image.
Cut to: Another point in time. Hochbaum, on vacation with her family, finds herself overlooking the Grand Canyon in Arizona as the sun is setting. She sets up her camera and begins to shoot. Here time is a key factor, the great motivator for all film and photo shoots – it’s all about “losing the light.” From one moment to the next the light has shifted, and Hochbaum continues to engage the shifts. Along this section of the ridge only seconds ago the waves of ebbing pink light had burned brighter. She caught that too and will use it, the shifting tones expanding an infinite palette culled from those minute variations in the light. Out into the canyon, in and among the ancient carved gorges, Hochbaum moves her eye and her lens and frames the geological passages in chapters, sectional phrases of stone and distance. Storm clouds congregate overhead, ever-darkening with the fading sun. A gnarled juniper seems to oversee this symphonic moment, its limbs captured and repeated in Hochbaum’s final composition, Sunset at Grand Canyon (2008).
Ultimately all of Hochbaum’s composites speak of time; it’s part of what she’s always pulling into the work. Her composites are fueled by a feeling of visual voraciousness and a delight in the tension between component details and the greater whole. Hochbaum’s concerns with breaking up space in a planar fashion can be seen in her early painting and print work. Her composite photographs can be compared to those of David Hockney. Both artists have found ways in which the format is a conduit for each artist’s painterly impulses. Hockney’s composites create and emphasize a two-dimensional image, dismantling photography’s potential for depth of field, whereas Hochbaum engages the process as a method of expansion and exploration of the possibilities of pictorial space, emphasizing depth by restating variations in atmospheric space and the relationships between the objects that inhabit that space.
Flashback: Southern California (night). Hochbaum finds herself at the base of a suburban mountain. Interior lit architecture glows under an electric blue sky. The artist begins to shoot, assembling component pieces for what will become Evening in Orange County (2008). The composition reveals itself in the triadic structure of three ficus trees, one placed front and center, another to the left in the middle distance, and another far off to the right. The trees sparkle with holiday lights wrapped around their trunks and limbs, equally beautiful and absurd, simultaneously of and apart from nature. In the final composition a dot of a brilliant white moon pierces the upper left quadrant of the work, offset by a fugue-like jigsaw of shifting zones, deep blue panels of sky that form a sublime architecture.
A central impulse of Hochbaum’s work seems to be to offer an experience of Beauty in the most classical sense. But Hochbaum’s fractured narratives give way to a subtle-but-potent idea, that beauty is an ever-shifting process, a destabilized chaos in which magnificent shards conjoin to serve a unity. Hochbaum highlights the interrelationship of her component parts, refusing the ease of the seamless image. Even the subject matter of Hochbaum’s work is subsumed by her compositional imperatives. Hochbaum, out in the world with her camera, seems to be on the lookout for vistas powerful enough to withstand the crucible of her process.
Pan across to: It’s been storming out and Hochbaum’s gaze is drawn through a window of her home out onto the depth of green of her back yard. She positions her camera, capturing pictorial pieces that will culminate in a three-tiered composition of grass, trees and tempestuous sky. This accumulation will manifest as Stormy Weather (2008), in which Hochbaum’s compositional acumen kicks into high gear. Here the reflections of a white window frame become a curvilinear grid that serves as a metaphoric and structural foundation for the piece. Note the interplay between the geometry of its architectural form and the lines of the white barn structure outside. The panes of Hochbaum’s component units of the natural world parallel the window panes through which her camera eye is focused. The lines of the curving grid begin to suggest an ovoid shape that holds the work’s center. Stormy Weather is a compositional tour-de-force, simultaneously sustaining a tremendous sense of movement and breathtaking balance.
Trees are the rubric around which this grouping of work was formed, however trees aren’t the whole story. Each one of these works contains, frames, flaunts and celebrates the trees within them, but the real through-line is Hochbaum herself, and her persistent eye. These works represent moments in time in which the artist, fully present and engaged, grabs hold of the world coming in through her viewfinder. The works come into being cinematically, in the editing room, where the artist, now in retreat from the outer world remakes it at will. Consider a work such as Christmas Eve at Rite Aid (2007). The mulberry tree is framed dead center, but somehow the subtext of the work can’t be suppressed. Christmas Eve in a drug store parking lot—no people around, not even that many cars. A strange, suspended, moment in time, one that had most likely been built around some kind of banal errand. But there’s Hochbaum, at the ready—noticing.
Amy White is an artist and writer who lives in Carrboro, NC.