It has been just over a century since the human figure, considered the repository of transcendent truths for centuries, was thrown into the art-historical dustbin. As manufacturing and modernism supplanted agriculture and its nature-rooted worldview, copying plaster casts seemed to progressive artists both morally bankrupt and aesthetically irrelevant; change, relativity, subjectivity, science, and avant-gardism were the new values. But what’s old is new again. Two local photographers, LeRoy Howard and Ron Moultrie Saunders, see in the human body and its silent, gestural theater new possibilities for depicting history and drama in this post-postmodern age.
Howard’s black-and-white prints, collectively entitled The Moment, recall late-19th-century Pictorialism, imitating paintings with “literary” themes in the manner of, say, F. Holland Day (whom the bearded Howard somewhat resembles). Howard poses nude for all the figures in his multiple-exposure reconstructions of Old Master favorites: Leonardo’s thirteen at table (“Last Supper”); Caravaggio’s risen Christ and apostles (“The Doubter”); both decedent and mourners in Mantegna’s “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (“The Moment #3”); several versions of the Passion, synthesized (“Crucifixion Triptych”); and that modern lamentation, Larry Burroughs’ Vietnam War photograph “Reaching Out” (“Wounded Soldier Triptych”). Illness and death inform some of the works, as do the artist’s Episcopalian faith and his long interest in dance and performance, including the psychologically charged Butoh. Each constitutes “the private enactment of a one-man performance piece manifested on film.” The 4×5 negatives are scanned and then digitally printed on aluminum panel coated with clear or white polymer. The Moment runs through February 26 at PHOTO (473 25th St., Oakland). 510-847-2416 or photogalleryoakland.com.
Saunders, known for his elegant floral photograms, tackles a thornier subject — the Triangular Trade in slaves — in Passage, a two-person show that also includes sculpture, installation, and video by Karen Seneferu; her “Afrofuturistic Techno-kisi” figures combine the archaic (nails, mirrors) and the ultramodern (LCD video). The show’s title refers to the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, a subject memorably painted by Turner in “The Slave Ship,” depicting the tossing of sickened slaves overboard, but it also refers to spiritual and physical passing, and thus commemorates historical injustice. Like Howard, Saunders inserts himself into the work, posing his head, dreadlocked hair, hands, and arms over the photo paper and adding, through additional exposures, the patterns of veined leaves (“Head Leaf”) or bubbles (“Cosmic Dancer,” “Middle Passage II”), both suggestive of death and transfiguration, or rope and printed cloth (“DNA I,” “Ropes”), suggesting cultural survival. Passage runs through March 11 at Krowswork (480 23rd St., Oakland). 510-229-7035 or Krowswork.com