Painterly photographs never seem to lose their appeal -- there's a reason there are multiple apps that specialize in turning your boring old photographs into neatly framed, beautiful works of art. Rita Bernstein achieves a similar effect in her work, but rather than pushing a button, the Philadelphia photographer spends hours in and out of the darkroom, brushing silver emulsion onto Japanese gampi or applying beeswax and oil paint to handmade paper.
These are the two main methods employed among the nearly two-dozen works in "Out of Place," Bernstein's solo show currently up at John Cleary Gallery. The photographs are mostly black and white, with unclean edges and square shapes, like some sort of self-made Instagram filter. The smallness of the images -- the biggest are still only 12"x12" -- also adds to their intimacy.
Like any stranger's Instagram collection, these images are also highly personal, framed snapshots into the artist's life -- they feel like a trip through the deep recesses of Bernstein's brain. They're unstaged, organic images of her friends and family, taken almost slyly -- there's the teenage girl lying down on a bed, face turned away from the viewer and her mess of curly hair tumbling down in "Joanna, Age 16." In "Swimmer," a girl has her back to us, standing in a pool surrounded by water, isolated.
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And, like any stranger's personal cache of photos, it would be difficult to always connect with the works. But there's also a rawness to Bernstein's photographs in their framing that is enhanced by the materials and process. The paper's edges are uneven, the image unfinished or broken where the silver emulsion wasn't brushed on all the way. The paper itself is uneven, with the image riding slight ridges. This fragility to the paper itself adds to the vulnerability of the subjects.
The works with beeswax and oil paint, that vintagey tradition of encaustic painting, take on a more haunting quality. The image is so manipulated that the women and children in her photographs seem less like full-bodied subjects and more like apparitions. They're black shadows at the end of a staircase, a silhouetted couple walking in a landscape, a woman standing in front of a mirror, looking off somewhere we can't see. In "Still Lives," they're not human at all, but mannequins in a window, elegantly, emptily posed in their evening wear.
Filters may be all about making works beautiful, but they often leave you quickly moving on to the next one. These images stay with you long after you've viewed them.
"Rita Bernstein: Out of Place" at John Cleary Gallery, 2635 Colquitt St., now through July 31. For more information, call 713-524-5070 or visit www.johnclearygallery.com.