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Friday, May 15, 2009

Diana Grandi and Elizabeth Opalenik at the Photography Center of the Capital District

An exquisite show by photographers Diana Grandi and Elizabeth Opalenik, titled Tuscany: Timeless Beauty, has been installed at the Photography Center of the Capital District in Troy, but there's a twist: It's likely that the show will disappoint those who are attracted by the title just as much as it will delight those who are put off by it.

To mangle a phrase, this is not your tour guide's Tuscany. Instead of calendaresque color pictures of sunflowers and vineyards, the visions presented by Opalenik (image at right) and especially Grandi (image above) are subtle, personal and, yes, timeless in a far deeper way than the cliché would suggest.

The two are frequent and longtime collaborators who give workshops in the Siena area. Opalenik, a California artist of some renown, has gone there many times since 1993; Grandi is a native and full-time resident and is, in my opinion, the better artist, though I'd never heard of her before this show (which, by the way, is the first one at the Photo Center of artists not directly associated with this region).

All of Grandi's archival pigment prints in the show are black and white, and about half of Opalenik's are. The rest of Opalenik's either deploy hand-coloring variations or are digital enlargements of manipulated SX-70 Polaroids (which are full-color). For the most part, the show's monochromatic majority stands well above all but the best efforts among the color images.

There are 43 pictures in all, presented in a unique way - the lovely, matte surfaces of the prints are not glassed over; instead, they are mounted to deckle-edged art paper and held to the walls with strips of unstained decorative wood moulding at the top and bottom, making for a somewhat Oriental or Victorian effect. Either interpretation is valid and appropriate to the style and subject matter of the photographs, one reason being that the gorgeous tones achieved by the pigment printing method resemble nothing in the range of photographic possibilities so much as the turn-of-the-century method of photogravure.

But technique is only important when it serves the subject, and this it does exceptionally well for Grandi's honed-down visual style. Clearly, she benefits from having the insider's view - her Tuscany is a place of fog, nets, tree bark and insects, with dark light and luscious textures. My favorites of hers here include tree studies titled Bamboo and Cypress; her study of a dew-bejewelled spider web, titled Diamonds, is also particularly well seen.

Opalenik is a very accomplished photographer best known for her nudes, and she does include some of those in this show. Of the several that feature ballet dancers as models, the one titled Valentina, Montalcino 2004 is the most affecting, not least of which because of the physically stunning ballerina's unapologetically sharp Italian beak.

Opalenik definitely shows herself as an outsider, though, with sentimental views of the countryside, a still life or two of old farm implements, and shots of local people doing local things. I can't really knock it, having spent years living in Tuscany myself and still sometimes making pictures there that do not transcend the subject - but Opalenik's sweet sincerity does make a marked contrast with Grandi's total indifference to the topical approach.

It is worth noting that Grandi has committed to donate 100 euros to quake relief in the Abruzzo region for every picture she sells. Also, beware that the Photo Center is only open evening hours during the week (and closed on Wednesdays) but it is open from 12 to 6 on Saturdays and Sundays. The show runs through June 7.

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