Arts Desk

Reviewed: Colby Caldwell at Hemphill Fine Arts and Civilian Art Projects

The prolific and stylistically restless D.C.-based artist Colby Caldwell is not only mounting two simultaneous exhibits—at Hemphill Fine Arts and Civilian Art Projects—but the exhibits feature four distinct bodies of work, each with a varied take on photography. Several works (including the one below) are new examples from Caldwell’s decade-old series “How to Survive Your Own Death”—large-scale, abstract, heavily waxed, kaleidoscopic matrices derived from blow-ups of an accidental glitch that popped up when Caldwell was transferring landscape footage from Super 8 film. The new works stemming from this talismanic electronic hiccup are notable for their thematic coherence despite their differences in magnification; they also offer striking combinations of hues (the magenta-morphing-into-indigo is particularly striking) and a suggestion of digital ubiquity, a theme that has only increased since the series took flight a decade ago. On the other end of the abstract-to-representational scale is a series of color photographs of abandoned hunting blinds in various states of weather. Though Caldwell’s respect for vernacular wooden architecture hat-tips fellow Hemphill artist William Christenberry, the images’ colors and subject matter are uncharacteristically bland compared to some of his previous attempts at old-school photography. The remaining two series consist of monumental portraits (or technically, direct digital scans) of humble objects—specifically, a pair of subjects that are inextricably linked, spent shotgun shells and dead birds. The idea of artists memorializing avian remains is a longstanding trope (if you’re wondering, just Google “dead bird painting”), but Caldwell’s bird offerings are quietly impressive, particularly one severed, scarlet wing set against an inky black background. Even more mesmerizing, though, are the spent shells, which have been deteriorating in visually intriguing ways on his property in rural St. Mary’s County, Md. The shells, which Caldwell expands to many times their actual size, offer striking tactile properties (pitted metal, rust, pustules, a sprinkling of sand, and the occasional protruding twig); mysterious, slowly disappearing manufacturers' markings; an array of interesting shapes (flattened, corrugated and an oddly sensuous curve that approximates the hang of a full-length dress), and notable shades of color (including mother of pearl, a purple-to-aqua fade with yellow highlights, and an inexplicable hot pink, above). Humble and immediately tangible, these are a worthy successor to the celebrated cigarette-butt blow-ups of Irving Penn.

The exhibition is on view Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St., and Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday 1 to 6 p.m. at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 7th St. NW to May 25.

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