Simen Johan’s alluring, fey, decidedly uncanny photographs of animals make clever use of our inclination to ascribe human feelings and stories to other living beings. But Johan’s animals are not tame; they’re not sweetly domestic like Peter Rabbit or Stuart Little. In his series “Until the Kingdom Comes” at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, the prints’ large scale makes them confrontational. He seeds the works with careful detail to complicate every scene. There’s an edge of threat to even the sweetest of his images.
Johan uses both film and digital photography. He takes pictures of live animals, roadkill, and taxidermy, posing the figures and adding details digitally. He has a choreographer’s attunement to form and uses it to exaggerate the creatures’ natural assets, making them more imposing, as in “Untitled #154,” a dance of serpents.
Several big snakes rise, coiling around each other to make a sinuous freestanding sculpture on the floor of a bleached-out canyon. It’s a twisting, knotty, unnervingly alive form, made more jarring by the birds hovering above. One bird’s leg encounters the darting tongue of the topmost snake: Will it escape, or be consumed? Birds appear in another eerie scene in “Untitled #133.” Green parakeets flutter like butterflies around two battling moose, which draw blood with their antlers, but the parakeets, so bright and delicate and vulnerable, linger like a blessing.
The red foxes seated in the snow in “Untitled #136” pull you in because they appear to be snuggling. Their fur fluffs. Look closely, and you’ll see their mouths are bloody. One fox has tears streaming from its eyes; the other’s eyes are closed. They look noble in grief. But what has happened? Why do they mourn? We don’t know, but in this piece Johan plays on the foxes’ wildness and the easy tenderness we can feel for animals. The mix, as in many of these works, is disconcerting.
Lori Nix, another photographer who creates mythic scenes, has an exhibit of her early work, from 1998-2004, up at Ellen Miller Gallery. Nix builds elaborate sets using toys and models to create startling, filmic shots with saturated tones. Some make way for disaster; others look haunted.
The succinct images from the first series here, “Accidentally Kansas,” feature simple settings. In “Plane,” the very shallow focus offers a crisp water tower, with a blurred blue house in the background. A plane looms out of the sky, on a collision course with the tower. Nix packs a punch with her materials: The models suggest playtime, tingeing the images with innocence, but the sense of doom still penetrates.
The settings grow more elaborate in her next series, “Some Other Place.” “Lovers Leap” has her meticulously erecting an urban riverfront block with industrial and commercial buildings. A bridge reaches over the river. From its edge, a woman plummets. A man remains there. Was he going to jump, too? Or did he push her?
Nix’s use of color and theatrical lighting amps up the drama. In “Uranium Extraction Plant,” the plant, its windows glowing aqua, sits atop a chiseled cliff against a peach, twilit sky. The story, again, is in the tiny details: Two pipes jut from the side of the cliff, leaking green goop into the pond below. The deer watering there have turned to glass, no doubt poisoned. If the point is obvious, the route there is a visual pleasure.
When you first walk in Gallery NAGA’s door, most of Esther Solondz’s chilling and peculiar installation, “The Slow Vast Heave of Matter That Just Floats in the World,” is hidden by a movable wall. The title is scrawled in pencil, and a small, fading print of a woman hangs there. You can’t even make out her features.
Step past the wall and you’ll find tables, each with an intricate structure that might be a bird cage made with thread, cobwebs, and dewdrops. The spindly webs are silicon strung over wire, often glistening and translucent, sometimes thick and white as frosting.
The structures sport ornate curlicues and finials. There’s something Seussian about them as they tilt and curl, but they also look like the forgotten skeletons of wedding cakes, which brings to mind the specter of the never-to-be-married bride, Miss Havisham, in Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” who wore her wedding dress decades past its expiration date.
This uneasy sensation is amplified by smaller pieces suspended from the ceiling on big hooks, with heavy black thread. Some, clad in gauzy fabric, sway like ghosts. Others, pink and white and drippy, are cylinders ringed with tutus, or bell shapes with droplets clinging to their rims.
Everything here appears to droop and cave in. At the same time, the art glimmers like diamonds and beckons like cupcakes. It looks fragile and on the verge of dissolution, yet has the feeling of eternity about it. Solondz powerfully stirs up vanquished hope and lingering fear with this installation of discrete pieces. Imagine if she could create a structure, large enough to walk inside, of wire, and dewdrops, and decay.