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Natural artistry

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back in the 1960s, the return to nature urge among educated suburbanite middle class youth aka hippies gave birth to “Earth Day,” the Whole Earth Catalogue and Mother Earth News.

“Balancing Act” by Esteban Ismael Duran exudes a syncopated rhythmic vibe like dancers upon a stage.

The “Back to Earth” exhibition of constructions by Esteban Ismael Duran and photography by Dan Geist at the Page Coleman Gallery has no other agenda than to remind us all of the staggering beauty surrounding us and the imaginative flights that our visual opulence can engender.

Duran takes joy and wields his prodigious craftmanship with wooden detritus resulting from damaged tables, chairs, stair-rails, pianos and even an occasional oak toilet seat to re-purpose those things into visual poems.

His subject matter ranges from archery – “Archer with no Arrows” – to nuclear disaster – “Thoughts of Fukushima” – and on to what may be political commentary in “Chump Tower,” a nicely constructed architectonic free-standing unit.

In “Finding My Center of My Universe,” Duran stylistically touches upon Louise Nevelson’s 1960 “Lunar Landscape,” one of her many black-on-black wood assemblages, but Duran widely eschews copyright infringement through his rigorous transmutation of materials into a personal vision.

Since Nevelson, 1899-1988, Kurt Schwitters, 1887-1948, and a few others pioneered the use of black or white painted recycled wood to create abstract sculpture and installations during the early 20th century, Duran is really just building upon their collective legacy rather than copying their work product.

That fact comes home in “Balancing Act,” Duran’s syncopated rhythmic construction in unpainted wood that utilizes furniture bits and pieces to create a harmonious composition. His vertical assemblage is replete with complimentary arcs and a bow-form that work with each other like dancers on a stage – coo coo cachoo.

Geist and his daughter, Margo, did a lot of hiking during the 1980s. Both of them are excellent artist-photographers but the hikes with large format cameras in tow were Dan’s way to produce a collection of stunning landscape images captured through the painstaking platinum print process. He also fashioned a jaw-dropping series of silver prints.

In his artist notes Geist explains the platinum print process and history in great detail but for our purposes we only need to know that influential photographers Clarence White, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Paul Strand were all enamored with the technique.

Platinum prints are hand-made by painting a chemical solution containing platinum onto archival paper and then contact printing by exposing an overlaid negative to sunlight or ultraviolet light.

The image size is limited to the size of the negative hence the need for large format cameras.

The mind-boggling results are almost three dimensional and are of such high resolution that extremely fine details are visible in the darkest shadows.

One of my favorites is “Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon, Utah” a gorgeously warm image of ancient pictograph paintings of ghostly figures on the canyon wall. It’s as if the spirits of the ancient people are telling stories of ancient heroic deeds and long forgotten journeys.

The viewer is compelled to fix their gaze because in any instant those images may fade back into the past from which they were born.

Another ephemeral image is “Canyon de Chelly, Utah” replete with a herd of mountain sheep traversing a few flat clefts in the cliffside. The serrated rock face alludes to thousands of centuries of build-up and erosion revealed by the relentless rush of water through what began as a small rift and grew into a monumental living landmark.

Before the current 30-year drought, Canyon de Chelly was one of the most beautiful places on Earth. In a series of images Geist has frozen at least some of that former elegance. Platinum does not fade or discolor over time so these pictures will last long after the rains come again and the ancient order is restored.

These are two great solo shows. Do not miss them.

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