AMHERST — The counterculture comedy troupe Firesign Theatre called its second album “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?” What makes the title funny is that the question needs no answer. Much of the fascination of the empty spaces seen in “Lynne Cohen: False Clues” has to do with the unanswerability of the questions those spaces pose — and how those spaces, even though they really do exist, seem like nowhere at all. These locations create a sense of dislocation.
The show runs through March 9 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The 38 images by the Canadian photographer could be mistaken for accidental installations. These spaces have the heightened, uncanny look of settings arranged and altered for artistic effect. Yet they are all actual rooms or spaces she happened upon: offices, laboratories, classrooms, storage facilities, shooting ranges. “I don’t search for something weird,” Cohen has said. “What I want is something just a step from the everyday.”
She photographs these spaces with a view camera. View cameras offer a precision of detail beyond what the human eye normally takes in. This lends the images a sense of hyper-reality. “It looks faker than if it were fake,” Cohen says in a video interview accompanying the show. That’s exactly right. Everything is almost spooky, so uninflected as to seem one big inflection. The results are transfixing. There’s a sense of nearly demented calm. Architecture is said to be frozen music. These spaces are frozen silence. They have the appearance of drained aquariums or terrariums with all the air pumped out. No people are visible. To populate would be to violate. The rooms feel that complete, that self-contained.
As if to compensate for the lack of people, there are odd objects aplenty: targets, microphones, silhouettes of submarines, a chandelier, balloons, pillows, photographs of many fez-wearing men. They all contribute to the sense of serene dislocation.
Why does that room have an artificial tree in it, with Astroturf on the floor and not one but two shades of green on the walls? What is that small cross doing on that curving white wall with two light fixtures? There are no answers. Open in appearance yet hermetic in meaning, these spaces give a sense of having secrets that they refuse to reveal.
The pictures are big. Most are about 4 feet by 5 feet. Some are as big as 8 feet by 9 feet. The scale adds a great deal to the impact of the photographs. So does Cohen’s use of color. She’s described herself as “a reluctant convert to color,” and a few of the images are in black and white. But color somehow adds to the feeling of unnaturalness. The additional information that color imparts increases the tension between specificity and unreality.
The exhibition space at the UMCA is not, it must be said, the most hospitable. So it speaks very well for work capable of standing out there. That’s the case with Cohen’s photographs. Perfect for this non-space, they more than hold their own on its walls.
The images are discrete, yet seen in the gallery they feel serial. They could be rooms in the same vast, vastly variegated house. “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” the Bible says. Some of these mansions are very peculiar indeed. They’re not sacred spaces, but they convey a quality of evacuated immanence. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described Romanticism as “spilled religion.” Looking at how cool, clean, and blandly ungiving these images are, one wonders if minimalism might be best understood as evaporated religion. Is this how things will look after the Rapture?
. . .
A very different sort of dislocation figures in Barbara Norfleet’s “DRINK: The Pleasures and Perils of Alcohol.” It runs at Hampshire College’s Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography, and Video through Feb. 28. Where the absence of people is crucial for Cohen’s photograph, their presence is no less so for Norfleet.
The title sounds like a 19th-century temperance lecture. The technique Norfleet uses is early 20th-century, photographic collages, in the manner pioneered by John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch. Though the two dozen collages in “DRINK” look not at all like Heartfield’s or Hoch’s, the visual effects Norfleet gets are similarly surreal and absurd.
Norfleet, still active at 88, has had a remarkable, and remarkably varied, career. Teaching social relations at Harvard, she got interested in photography. That interest took two, highly fruitful forms. Norfleet was founding director of Harvard’s Carpenter Center photography collection, becoming an early and influential advocate for the artistic merits of vernacular photography. Norfleet also began undertaking a series of striking photographic projects, ranging from upper-crust families to US military installations.
For “DRINK,” Norfleet uses photographs she’s taken in the past and superimposes faces and bottles and glasses from mail-order catalogs and ads in glossy magazines. The background photographs are in black and white. The cutouts are color. “I do not know Photoshop,” Norfleet writes in an artist’s statement. These are literal cut and paste. “Collage gives the faces and liquor a super reality.”
It does, and the resulting images are funny and sad and unashamedly didactic. In one, a pair of revelers stand in front of Max Beckmann’s great painting “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo.” In another, a partygoer wears a collaged bandolier over her stylish satin blouse. There are nips in the belt holders and a liquor bottle in the holster. The images themselves look a bit drunk, which is part of the point.
In their condemnation of alcohol, the collages display the wisdom — and a tad of the sententiousness — of someone soon to enter her tenth decade. No less do they display a sass and spunk worthy of an artist just starting out and with many places still to go.
The Pleasures and Perils of Alcohol
At: Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography, and Video,
Hampshire College, 893 West St., Amherst, through Feb. 28,