Plastic CameraWorks 2
Rebus Works
Through March 27

The gallery owner had to convince me that the deer in the photograph were fake. Even now, I can mentally return to the image and buy into those deer as real. Positioned as they are, in contrast to what you would call a “man-made” setting, they stare directly into the camera and, to my eye, communicate a feral realness. But then again, I was once caught watering a plastic ficus.

Perhaps the compelling vitality of the faux fauna in Francesca Tallone’s “Deer” has to do with the lens through which the image was captured. The gallery notes tell us that this photograph was taken with a Kodak Instamatic. Indeed, every work in the show is listed with the camera that was used to make it. Plastic CameraWorks 2 is Rebus Works’ second juried exhibition of photographs taken with cameras that have plastic lenses. The ambiguity of what is real and what is fake is amplified when seen through a synthetic eye. The plastic filter keeps images just beyond our grasp, dreamlike, set always elsewhere, certainly not here, and generally in the past. It generates a sense of distance, and even nostalgia, for something that happened even a few moments ago. Christian Nze’s black-and-white pastoral idylls could have been shot last week, but they scan as vintage and have more in common with Eugène Atget than, say, Ansel Adams. Jeff Evans’ go-cart snapshots are bathed in a yellow haze that feels like memory.

Plastic CameraWorks is comprised of 66 images by 42 artists, and yet the show coheres in the unifying gaze of the plastic eye. Aside from the above-mentioned ersatz deer, the collection is peppered with images of artifice, fake things that include dolls, a pink elephant, the sculpted figure of a fearsome bear in front of a small decrepit house, iconic Russian figureheads and Colonel Sanders in effigy, riddled with what appear to be bullet holes. These depictions of simulacra only reinforce the idea of the tendency of the plastic lens to render its subjects uniformly. The real merges with the artificial. Darshana Borah’s “Winter” is shot with a camera poetically called a Blackbird Fly TLR. This decidedly surreal middle-of-nowhere landscape, in which snow deceptively masquerades as desert sand, features an ovoid public telephone that, surrounded as it is in snowy whiteness, elicits associations to 1960s mod style and eerily suggests Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

The notion of the plastic eye flows back to another Kubrick creation, the image of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Marie Arondeau’s “Ode to Sherman” is a red-tinged close-up of a face that reinforces awareness of the lens through which it is seen. The dark, hollow eyes that stare into the camera remind us that artist created the image via the interface and participation of a (simplistic but nevertheless essential) machine. The airplane windows in Ellen Faircloth’s work also send me back to Kubrick and the curvilinear portal that serves as the eye of the nonliving but somehow sentient HAL.

Another indelible cinematic iteration of the plastic eye manifests in the image of Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, forced into full diving gear and viewing the world through the plastic lens of his scuba mask. No sound penetrates as Braddock moves through social space, ultimately finding solace (and sheer alienation) at the bottom of a suburban swimming pool. This submerged state is another unifying quality of the work in Plastic CameraWorks. The luminous narrative of Miranda Maynard’s four-paneled “Running,” the transmutation of the ordinary in Todd Brantley’s “Floating Dress” and Rich McIsaac’s untitled hypersaturated sunset are all examples of this distanced, almost underwater quality.

Plastic CameraWorks takes us on a virtual tour of a diversity of world locales. While several of the shots come from North Carolina, the images deliver us to Russia, England, Iraq, Las Vegas and the Philippines, among other destinations. However, instead of guidebook landmarks or touristy postcards, the dominant images in these works are their flaws, blurs, dust marks and tricks of light. What gets expressed are inherent filmic propertiessprocket holes, dark halos, sun flares and other forms of photographic distortiona universalizing principle that unites a spectrum of imagery and places.

It’s gratifying to experience a well-conceived juried show that has a point of view and a story to tell. Plastic CameraWorks tells a story of the aesthetic pleasure of the degraded image. The degraded image elicits a sense of urgency; it carries sufficient aesthetic and/ or narrative import that even this one (albeit wrecked) version is better than no image at all. It works on the mind like a de facto Zapruder film, a gleaming found object that gets to the truth, an important piece of evidence, an artifact, a game-changer. I’ve noticed that participants in what we problematically refer to as “reality” television often harp about whether someone is “real” or “fake.” Being fake is clearly a bad thing to be. It can get you voted off the island. I’m not exactly sure when this crucible was reintroduced into the popular interpersonal sphere, but in the ’60s and ’70s, the uncool people were referred to as “plastic.”

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that all of my visual associations to the work in Plastic CameraWorks coalesce between 1966 and 1971, a paradoxical cultural moment that simultaneously celebrated and demonized plastic. Consider Andy Warhol’s music and film performance extravaganza, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, channeled here recently at Duke by Dean & Britta with their 13 Most Beautiful Songs … For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.

Or we can simply go back to that classic line from The Graduate: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word … Plastics.”