Silver Eye Center exhibit looks at the power of green from many angles

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 6:25 p.m.

“It's not easy being green” may well be Kermit The Frog's most famous quote, but it is a phrase that has become popular, in and out of context, in pop culture. For a variety of reasons — from race and diversity to environmentalism and so-called “green architecture” — the phrase, and particularly the word “green,” has taken on many connotations since Kermit first sang about it in the early 1970s.

Photographer Dylan Vitone, an associate professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, set out to find a group of photographers to define “green” for an exhibit of the same title currently on display at Silver Eye Center for Photography, South Side.

For Vitone, assembling a diverse group of photographers was “super-important.”

“It was one of the main drivers of the exhibition,” he says. “Using what might appear to be a simple idea, ‘green,' I wanted to explore something more complex: the variety of different meanings it can conjure for people. I was trying to get at the diversity of the human experience, hopefully without being too heavy-handed about it.”

As Vitone expected, the seven photographers he chose all approached the subject in different and delightful ways.

For example, Joe Johnson, head of the art-photography program at the University of Missouri, Columbia, chose to represent the idea of green in the context of money, especially as it relates to gambling.

The six large, color photographs by him in the show were taken in the casinos of Reno, Nev., where, “the casino spectacle is delivered with varying degrees of success,” Johnson says.

Through Johnson's perceptive eye the dated nature of the structures, some in foreclosure, along with an unforgiving high-desert light, humble the grand claims being made by the casino architecture.

“Reno accommodates a great many extremes,” Johnson writes, “and I continue to photograph these polarities: the complexity of the dark, labyrinthine casino interiors contrast the spectacular physicality of the exterior light, and mammoth-scaled casino structures contrast the diminutive-sized human.”

For Johnson, the playing field of the casino is where fantasy, chance, winning, losing, hope and failure are all be found in one place.

Kim Beck, an associate art professor at CMU, shows a series of images titled “The Grass Is Greener,” which are arranged on two walls at the rear of the gallery in a low, horizontal line.

In this way, the lawns she chose to photograph sit side-by-side, suggesting specificity of place and its simultaneous collapse. The lawns are specific: Each spot has different weeds, soil, turf variety, erosion, burn marks and evidence of maintenance with fertilizers, lawnmowers and water. “Each one has at some point been just beneath my feet,” Beck says.

For Beck, the images evoke the parallel traditions of landscape photography and Hudson River School painting, while simultaneously upending them, replacing the majestic sweep of valleys, canyons and rivers with photographs of lawns and weeds, something she calls, “a quintessential motif of the American urban and suburban landscape.”

In contrast, Santa Fe photographer Peter Beste chose to represent the concept of green from an entirely urban point of view.

“I like to photograph musical and political phenomena on the fringe of mainstream culture,” Beste writes. “Generally ignoring the rules of traditional commercial, fashion or fine art photography, I see topics to fully immerse myself in, pushing my personal and visual boundaries.”

In the gallery, a large photo collage filling one wall makes up the installation “Houston Rap.” The two-dozen plus images in it are just a small portion of a 280-page hardcover collaboration with writer Lance Scott Walker, which will be released in November by Sincere Books.

The book gives an in-depth look into the lives of Houston's rappers, dope dealers and community leaders, which Beste describes as “a great American cultural narrative.”

Here, with a mini version of that narrative, visitors are privy to all the telltale signs of a gritty urban lifestyle, from a photograph of guns and brass knuckles to portraits of gang members brazenly baring chests and tattoos. One image in particular, which focuses on a large wad of cash, gets across the idea that money, aka “green,” is the motivation behind much of the scenes Beste was able to capture.

Finally, what would a show about the word green be without a little plant life? Sue Abramson, an associate professor of photography at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, shows several photographs from her series “From The Same Bulb.”

Her works in this exhibit, like much of her work in recent years, are based on her own backyard garden, especially the elephant ears she grows there.

For example, two of her six pieces feature elephant ear bulbs she plucked from the ground and directly scanned. Dark and moody, in both it looks as if the bulbs are still deep within the earth.

“All the works are made by placing the objects directly on a flatbed scanner,” Abramson says.

“One of my yearly garden/art rituals is to plant elephant ear bulbs in the spring and harvest the leaves in the fall for photographic work,” she says. “For me, working in the yard and making botanical images are parallel practices. I approach both endeavors in a similar fashion, initially starting with a plan and then, as the work advances, collaborating and playing with my materials.”

For Abramson, the project has much more of a personal meaning than simply making images.

“Working in the home and in the garden were a significant part of my relationship with my husband, who died suddenly in 2006,” she says. “Thus, the elephant ear project, by integrating aspects of our shared life, allows me to move forward, while staying connected to my past.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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