Best in Show: 'The Atomic Explosion' at Peter Blum

Plus: 'New Prints 2011/Summer' at the International Print Center; Luca Pizzaroni at Fred Torres Collaborations

Over 30 years after the last aboveground test of an atomic bomb, the mushroom cloud—that ultimate symbol of apocalypse—doesn't look so fearsome in this fascinating collection of photographs, all taken in the two decades following World War II to document nuclear explosions. Isolated on the gallery's walls, removed from their original context, these images (mostly black and white) often carry a disquieting spiritual beauty. The irony hangs in the air like fallout, but those giant plumes, gracefully rising far above the earth's surface, suggest ascensions to heaven. A glowing orange fireball and its white halo of vapor—captured during a 1954 test on Bikini Atoll—appears as nothing less than a vision of God. Elsewhere, from 1951, guinea-pig soldiers of the 11th Airborne Division kneel like acolytes before a towering column of dust and debris, which looms astonishingly close to their position.

The immense physical presence of the blasts can be weirdly sculptural. In a 1946 South Pacific test, the monstrous mushroom has such startling symmetry and solidity that it seems to be some permanent structure assembled out of concrete. Nearby, a taller, treelike shape may be less visually impressive, but the caption makes the shot the exhibit's most conceptually haunting—beneath the billowing smoke sits Nagasaki, at the moment when 40,000 residents were vaporized.

'New Prints 2011/Summer'

Slug (Atom Cloud), Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Event Charlie, 22 April 1952
Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery, New York
Slug (Atom Cloud), Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Event Charlie, 22 April 1952

In his quirky, refreshingly candid essay for the International Print Center's 39th juried exhibit of prints, Trenton Doyle Hancock (sole judge) lauds the form as the "spunky underdog" that "trades immediacy for reflection." It's true that inked paper can't match the vibrancy of the painted canvas, but the pleasures of Hancock's 83 selections lie, as he implies, in thoughtful conception and subtle effects—clearly the efforts of artists who have mastered techniques that demand planning and patience.

Representation dominates here, and inevitably, Hancock chose several pieces that reflect his own work of richly imagined, cartoonish fantasy. In Matt Arrigo's etching Things That Rise in the Morning, a magical gaseous phantom, shaped with fine crosshatching, mysteriously emerges from a hole, while in Martin Azevedo's lithograph Dear Friends—suggestive of 18th-century engraving—a lumpy, piglike creature tries to communicate, via speech balloons, with a series of grotesque heads. Collaborating with writer Jorge Accame for the beautifully produced book Intranquilo, Thorsten Dennerline illustrated a story about the hours before Kafka's Gregor Samsa became an insect—bug-like creatures (originally printed from limestone) hover over photographs of urban scenes.

There are also a number of marvelous abstractions. In Joanne Greenbaum's untitled piece (which combines soft-ground etching and a sugar-lift aquatint to mimic drawing and painting, respectively), a black, furniture-like silhouette struggles to situate itself on a layer of anxious squiggles. Douglas Collins uses the fascinating chemigram (solvents applied to photosensitive paper) to produce a softened geometric minimalism, floating an imperfect square and rectangle in a sepia-toned wash. Similarly, the five, colorful cell-like objects in Sandra C. Fernández's etching Ontogenesis seem to be swimming in a fluid, surrounded as they are by ripples in the paper. The intelligent, energetic work here demonstrates why IPCNY makes such tireless efforts to give printmaking, with all its wonderful variety, the top billing it deserves. International Print Center, 508 W 26th, 212-989-5090, ipcny.org. Through July 29

Luca Pizzaroni: 'Gone With the Wind'

Gerhard Richter's overpainted photographs always look a little like grade-B sci-fi: ordinary landscapes or interiors suddenly invaded by multicolored ooze. Luca Pizzaroni has done something similar with snapshots he's collected from flea markets and eBay auctions. He dips each one in variously colored oils, obscuring parts of the original image, then scans and enlarges the result—a process that blurs the textures that define Richter's experiments, therefore rendering the paint as an impressionistic extension to the remaining glimpses of the subject. The best of these pictures, oddly compelling, convey a dreamy groping for memories through a blur of external sensation. Elsewhere, however, the drama of added color gets a bit too obvious in a series of old portraits smeared in translucent red, garishly implying blood and murder. Fred Torres Collaborations, 527 W 29th, 212-244-5074, fredtorres.com. Through September 2

 
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Norman Sarachek
Norman Sarachek

The IPCNY show is replete with exciting work. Doug Collins' chemigrams are gentle but strong. It is wonderful to see the chemigram technique recognized and part of the exhibition. First described by Belgian Professor Pierre Cordier in 1956, it is a unique art creating medium - using photo paper, chemicals and resist much like a print maker uses a plate, acid bath and resist. Those of us working with chemigrams are stretching the boundaries and IPCNY is doing the same in showing this work. Norman Sarachek - www.nsarachek.com

 
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