Reality check

"Sandy Skogland: Selected Works" and "Certain Grace: The Photography of Gary Monroe", Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Through March 11, 1998

Having just passed the season of Kodak moments, it's easy to see why the concept of photography is usually stored in the mind's file marked "reality." To most of us, photo images offer a familiar take on faces and places -- even those that are unfamiliar. But leave it to reality-challenging artists to push the boundaries of photography beyond the expected in two exhibits opening this week at Cornell Fine Arts Museum: "Sandy Skoglund: Selected Works" and "Certain Grace: The Photography of Gary Monroe."

Skoglund is a popular New York sculptor and photographer who deviates greatly from common photo conceptions. Acting like a film-set designer, Skoglund creates a life-size vignette in her studio, incorporating her own sculptures. Then she captures the installation in a Cibachrome photograph that heightens her sensational uses of brilliant color.

Her multimedia results are surreal and perhaps ever-so-sinister, like "Fox Games" (1987), which features a couple dining in an elegant, gray monochrome restaurant overrun by glowing red foxes jumping from table to table. In "A Breeze at Work" (1987), brilliant-blue leaf sculptures cover an office environment that's otherwise coated in brown.

It's like Skoglund has tapped into an invisible world that is alive and happening, all while the human participants are unaware, says Theo Lotz, curator of exhibitions at Cornell. So stylized are Skoglund's worlds- within-a-world that she might only produce one or two photographs a year. There will be 11 of Skoglund's photo creations on display, along with some of her sculptures. (Skoglund makes her only public appearance at 3 p.m. Sunday in a talk at the museum.)

By contrast, DeLand-based photographer Gary Monroe is prolific. He captures thousands of images each year in black and white, and has grown into one of the area's most noted photographers. For this first showing at Cornell, Monroe selected about 70 images from his various photo-documentary projects, though he drew primarily from three sources. There is nothing overtly manipulative in Monroe's photos, but when presented in context, they make a dark-edged statement.

That's the unifying mood of Monroe's Walt Disney World collection, which will surface in this exhibit and was the subject of an Orlando Weekly cover story ("Scenes From a Plastic Paradise," July 6, 1995). "Gary Monroe's stark black-and-white portraits of Disney visitors are more than an homage to the world's love affair with theme parks; like an exposed nerve, they reveals some troubling aspects of our humanity," wrote Kären Neustadt. "Here is not just gaiety, but boredom, sadness and a near-spooky emptiness in the midst of a candy-cane world."

Another highlighted project is "Life in South Beach," shot from 1977-1986, before the Miami area went Art Deco. That culture is "99 percent gone," says Monroe of the communal environment of the Eastern European Jews, average age pushing 80, who had made the beach their last refuge.

His three-part body of Haitian work also will figure prominently. Monroe says he started photographing Haitians in 1980 when the first boat people were arriving in America, which led him to focus on the Krome resettlement camp in west Miami-Dade County. Hooked on Haiti, he began traveling there in 1984, and later, he trained his lens on how Haitians were acclimating themselves in Florida. (Orlando has the second largest Haitian enclave in the state, next to Miami.) Monroe's insights will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1999 in a book titled "God Decides."

Taken together, the artists offer two different ways that photographers are creating art. "Gary kind of uses the camera as a framing device," says Lotz. He looks for potential scenes, events and moments, and takes a lot of photos, then acts like an editor to link the ones that work formally. "He doesn't have complete control. Skoglund is kind of creating an inner world, one from her imagination. ... She has complete control," says Lotz.

The images on display are all photographs, but viewers should be encouraged to be challenged by the possibilities of the many visions that lie within.


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