Two Views: New Work by Joseph Labate and Nicole Welch
Rebus Works
Through March 28

When you take a picture of the sky, what is it exactly that you’re capturing? The viewfinder frames an infinite trajectory, tracking the distance between the photographer and vast space.

Within the frame is the literal representation of air, light, atmospheric phenomena, particulate matter, precipitation, cloud formations or cloudlessness, time of day, geographic orientation. The sky’s ever-shifting state is often a metaphor for mood or emotion. Clear skies are anthropomorphized as serene, happy, optimistic. Dark, rainy skies are depressive, angry, tempestuous. We look upward when we are searching for somethingtrying to access that part of the brain that holds just the right word or idea we need to express something. Why do writers, poets and artists return again and again to the sky?

Sky is the subject of photographs by Joseph Labate and Nicole Welch in a show called Two Views, currently at Rebus Works in Raleigh. Neither Labate nor Welch relies on point-and-click modes of photographic representation in these works. Rather, they use the process of digital photography as a springboard for composition building. In both cases, acquired and synthesized units of visual data are compiled and coalesce in digitally constructed pictures.

Welch is represented here by four large works that at first seem empty but ultimately reveal an accumulation of visual information. Welch layers numerous minimalist skyscapes in a single piece to achieve a feeling of depth. The final composition is a multiplicity of skies inflected with suspended figures of birds, branches, land masses and an occasional building. All these images are seen through a matrix of telephone wires that read variously as nets, webs or barbed wire. Indeed, Welch’s grid of wires posits our earthbound status as a state of imprisonmentthe criss-crossing wires constitute a barrier between us and the great vastness. Sky in these works becomes the ultimate unattainable object of desire.

Where Welch’s skies are layered depths, Labate’s take the form of flat fields of manipulated color. And while Welch goes for a diluted palette, Labate hypes his skies in designer colorsbamboo green, swimming pool aqua and honeyed yellow. Labate’s four pieces are from his Tucson series. Contrails are a fundamental structural component of these works, cutting across the picture plane to demarcate the space. The trails contain a kind of gestural force and energy. They also feel like a violation of the space. There’s a breathlessness about these compositionsthe feeling of adrenaline rush from a sudden unexpected attack or onslaught. The contrails also function as fissures destabilizing placid space. Labate imposes spare geometric figures onto his compositionscircles and lines that feel indebted to Kandinsky. Another association to Labate’s works are the photo montages of John Baldessari that make bold use of geometric shapes in flat colors on found black and white images. Labate’s circles can also be seen simply as sun or moon shapes, as if the artist were attempting to reorder the cosmos.

There are many ways in which to view Welch’s and Labate’s work in Two Views, and one is in the context of the history of landscape painting and photography. In viewing these works I ask myself, What are they adding to the dialogue? The answer is: I’m not sure.

Welch’s Snowdream series is highly aesthetic, and yet its appeal raises questions. There is an almost facile quality to the work. Gertrude Stein said something to the effect that what is truly new will be perceived as ugly. Conversely, when a work of art gives me an immediate impression of beauty, it becomes suspect. I don’t completely trust such a knee-jerk reaction, and I try to take a moment to understand what I’m responding to. What familiar codes or signals are being replayed in this work that makes it so easily beautiful? The question in Welch’s work is whether it offers enough to sustain an enduring relationship with the viewer. Or does it manifest a more disposable experienceshort-lived and then gone?

Labate’s Tucson series communicates as much about the software he uses as the otherworldly skyscapes he composes. In one piece, Labate incorporates a bit of digital sleight of hand, transposing pixels into star shapes, rendering a single pixilated cloud into the image of a rocket ship. This technical gimmick reminds me of a quote from design guru Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, in which he states: “Avoid software. The problem with software is that everyone has it.” In this piece and others, the imprint of available technology seems to overshadow artistic intention. The false-colored skies, the magenta foliage of a group of trees, the placement of random forms upon the surface of the flat skiesI look at this work and see the artist playing around in Photoshop, seeing what he can do. Labate’s use of out-of-the-box Photoshop tools has a random quality to it. I begin to see Labate’s process as an inversion, and I wonder if perhaps Photoshop isn’t playing the artist.