George Krause: Quiet Discovery
By April Rapier
George Krause: An Overview of The Photographer's Work of the Past 25 Years February 2-27, at Harris Gallery, 1100 Bissonnet.
Each picture in this exhibit is a tribute to the insistence of thought and movement; they are magnificent, alone and as a group. The photographs are divided into four series with titles that serve as notations, not barriers — there is great lateral movement among them. It is remarkable to note that, as singular images, each is so deeply felt, not dependent on a concept or the strength and momentum of companion pieces. An aspect of their power lies in the synthesis of intimate and inanimate — not in a baroque, passionate sense, nor in an overly romantic sense inherent to much of the subject matter (graveyards, religious iconography, nudes). One step further lies the realm of empathy, and a complex and thorough understanding of intention and conclusion, where the photographer’s presence is a constant; he assures us with the deadly quiet of his discoveries. The assurances are graced with humility and occasional humor. His photographs are double edged, irony finding its way to both sides; he is a seeker of truth equally an intellectual and a mystic.
In confronting the over burdened subjects of religion and death, Krause explores old terrain, using new premises; he fuses disparate systems, and the sacred and profane meet as one. In a sense, looking closely can cause one to be less sure. The series Saints and Martyrs is drawn from religious statuary, icons and altars, and fixates on reexamined and re-positioned bits and pieces. The identities and connotations shift dramatically when taken out of context: aging plaster, easily identifiable by its overwrought decoration is infused with life of its own. Krause shows us the anima of collective belief; one has faith in the heavenly light, the knowing glances, the ecstasy that is pain and promise. Postures are studied closely; in one image, we are shown Jesus on the cross from the waist down; in another, the gesture of his hand touching the cross is emphasized. Both are extremely moving, not necessarily from the standpoint of sympathetic belief: they speak universally. By covering statues of Jesus and Mary with plastic, or placing them prone (the specifics are understated, which encourages highly interpretive response), the saints and deities, in watchful vigil, are humanized. A prone posture also heightens the notion of ecstasy. This approach helps us to understand the iconography unique to certain other cultures: for example, statues of saints are adorned with photographs of those in need of prayer; milagros (lovely representational medallions fashioned from silver, tin, etc.) hang from the same saints heralding success with gratitude. The pictures celebrate the richness of these rituals.
The series entitled Qui Riposa explores the eccentricity with which the dead are honored and remembered. These are very real people, beloved and mourned, still all-too-present. Sadly, the old tradition of affixing a photographic image to the headstone isn't practiced much anymore. Krause has recorded hundreds of them, in various parts of the world; the results are hauntingly sad and beautiful. They are celebratory as well, inviting tacit approval of the memory of someone unknown to us. Many of the juxtapositions are decorative, others unintentionally ironic; the ideology and symbols chosen to comfort the living and keep the dead company are endlessly fascinating. Often, babies were photographed after they had died, because no pictures existed prior. Great liberties were taken: eyes were retouched open, creating an unhappy and obvious parody of life. Couples were montaged together for an eternity of uneasy companionship: where were pictures of them together in life? Relationships were recreated, bonds reformed long after the last of uneasy truces had dissolved. In one image the woman is eternally a bride; the groom has faded entirely. Nature intervenes elsewhere; stone cracks, emulsion crazes and fades, snails climb over the faces portrayed, weeds disrupt carefully constructed sites. Messages are powerful, considering that they are contained within such confined spaces. They speak of guilt, sorrow, disbelief as well as the joy of memory. Krause includes the angels and saints who watch over the dead, who live on. In this context, their ornate splendor is less oppressive than in, say, the shop window that recurs in Saints and Martyrs. Another image tells of the organization adjoining death: the husband has passed on, yet the wife, still alive, is already beside him in the photograph, keeping him company, waiting to join him. That which is missing — the date of her death — oddly matters least. There are lighthearted moments represented: one (without a photograph) is a plaster bust; below it is the jubilant word MAMMA! In another, a man points at all who look, in the manner of a comedian, laughing forever. One is sure that this is decidedly how he wants to be remembered. Elsewhere, one of two photographs has been rather brutally scratched away, the memory too painful for someone to bear. Again and again we are reminded that it is memory that survived.
Krause's use of the nude is a similar reminder of mortality and eternal life. The series I Nudi (intentionally genderless) is neither profligate nor pure; in a subset of pictures inspired by the Leo Steinberg article entitled "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion," the saints and martyrs are humanized in yet another way — they are freed to explore their potential as sexual beings. To understand fully his work one must look to his sources of reference and inspiration, which are quite often literary and historical. Krauses postulations are the extra ordinary musings of a fertile mind, and it is my fervent hope that he will someday write about them: it is not my intention to go into the extensive connections here. He often recreates religious art history in the photographic allegories, sometimes using himself as a model, participating in the same measured tones as those he directs. Women are draped, chaste though not covered, suggesting a Madonna of this earth. Mother and son float in a pool: that she "carries" him is a poignant twist. The freedom in this case is both gravitational and emotional. The Madonnas here are unafraid to acknowledge their sexuality. One very powerful image, both contemporary and historical in tone, sees a long mirror against a wall in an otherwise empty room. Reflected in the mirror are Krause (nude) photographing the whole thing, and to his left, a nude woman, posing. She is upstretched; he assumes a more protected, behind-the-camera crouch. The viewer is given a more assertive point of view (that of photographer) because the photographer is at once participant and witness, A similarly magnetic image is layered from the floor skyward, where the photographer happens to be. A nude woman lies on a mirror, which rests on a sheet spread on the floor. One sees bits of reflection, Krause and camera included, which creates a circular reference, holding us captive within its confines. Little attention is paid, in general, to camouflaging the reality of the studio — its existence is readily acknowledged and included. Nor does it detract from the integrity of the story being told. He goes from the classic (woman swinging a white drape over her head, back to the camera, background colors black) to the absurd (George fully clothed, at a desk, a naked woman on his lap) with the same result being to recreate and thereby destroy stereotypical response. In a most courageous image, Krause is the only model: he has an erection, and he wears only a mask with an enormous nose. His hands are drawn back, no pretense of protection, and he is looking down.
Presented within the Street Pictures are random portraits (the mercury intensification of a negative does black skin great justice, resulting in a richer, truer, more beautiful tonality): graphic presentations of architecture and design elements, evidence of secret intentions — the way things really work when man invades nature; more myths in the form of hooded, robed figures, some carrying crosses, others placed in the landscape, calling to mind religion and its antithesis (KKK), heaven and hell as a single image. There is the occasional use of photographic sleight-of-hand; perhaps the objective is to make a sweet, appreciative comment on the wonder of it all. The events aren't momentous but the feelings evoked have great power. A few of the photos are from his book, George Krause I; the magic of his images only gets stronger when viewed repeatedly.
Krause is at his most demonstrative with the nude, yet never becomes exploitative. The tenets that support one series sustain others equally well. Certainly his subject matter is universal, thoroughly explored, yet without fail he brings to it his own incalculable worth and beauty, giving us the need as well as the desire to think it all through again. Something new will turn up every time.