The photographs of Alex Heria have an eerie quietness that's sometimes at odds with the means of their creation. Take the triptychs from a series called "Roadside Gardens," whose prosaic names belie their beauty: I-75 North, Northern Georgia, for instance, or I-195 East, Wilma Staging Area. Heria parked himself and a large-format camera in the medians of various stretches of interstate for these shots, which he took as traffic whizzed by him on either side.
By using long exposure times, Heria reduces the fast-moving trucks and cars to ghostly trails that are in contrast to the sharply focused landscapes he settles on. In a strikingly evocative introduction to this series, he writes: "What draws me are the secret moments of peace surrounded by the amazing roar of vehicles speeding by; sometimes, they honk at me. The curiosity, too, is the re-contextualized space: such lovely gardens nestled just within concrete and asphalt interstate highways."
One such garden, that of I-26 North, North Carolina-Tennessee Border, is a particularly vivid study in contrasts. In the right panel is an abundance of lush flora that clearly has been tended by human hands, and it spills into the middle panel, which also includes the edge of the rocky gap through which the interstate runs. Then, in the left panel, we get the highway itself, which looks to have been carved right out of the stony hillside.
Twenty-five of Heria's images are on display in "Alex Heria: Photographic Works From 2000-2008," and they're derived from four distinct bodies of work, of which "Roadside Gardens" is one. Similarly serene are the cloud photographs that make up "And the sky went on forever..." series. These are typically wide horizontal panels almost completely filled with clouds of all varieties, punctuated here and there by trees creeping in from the bottom of the frame or jet planes dotting the sky.
If it seems, looking at these clouds, that you have never seen skies quite like this, there's a good reason: They don't exist, at least not as Heria has portrayed them. Instead, the photographer has digitally cobbled together hundreds of shots of clouds, taken from the window of his Miami apartment looking out over Biscayne Bay, to form idealized versions of the heavens. Quite simply put, they're lovely to look at, especially if you've ever been a cloud gazer.
The skies above Miami are also the subject of the series "City and Sky," although the photographer takes a more passive role for this batch. They're all taken from more or less the same spot (Heria's apartment again?) at a more or less uniform distance, with the city's skyline forming a horizon at the very bottom of the frame. The sky above, however, varies wildly from image to image, with Heria's camera capturing a moody palette of night and day, stormy and calm.
The fourth series excerpted in the exhibition is also the least successful. For "Atmosphere," Heria capitalizes on a happy accident. After inadvertently double-exposing a shot of a tree, he set about to re-create the effect in other photographs. There's a vertiginous, almost hallucinogenic quality to a couple of these images, but the gimmick quickly wears thin.
To Heria's credit overall, he has managed to generate work with a fresh spin in a medium that's increasingly challenging. Although photography is far from spent as a means of creative expression, it remains one of the most difficult for contemporary practitioners to navigate.
I do wish, however, that the Art and Culture Center's presentation of this artist's work were a little more consistent. First and foremost, the exhibition feels incomplete. The museum's main gallery could easily accommodate a few more pieces and still give the work room to breathe, especially if the room's big curved wall at the south end were pressed into service.
A more radical solution might be to eliminate the "Atmosphere" section, freeing the long, narrow central gallery for additional works from the two most satisfying series, "And the sky went on forever..." and "Roadside Gardens." Even the "City and Sky" segment of the show would benefit from a couple of extra pieces, although to the center's credit, this series' installation — wrapped around a corner of the smallest gallery — is quite effective.
Another quirk of this show is downright annoying. Instead of providing individual title labels for each work, the museum gives us one group label per gallery, listing all the works on a single panel posted at the beginning. Worse still, there are no directional indicators such as "From left" or "Right wall" to help us tie the titles to the pieces they belong to. Heria deserves better.
It's not often that we get a beautiful coffee-table book and a local connection all in one package. That's what makes Learning to See: An Artist's View on Contemporary Artists From Artschwager to Zakanitch a treat.
The book is the work of Bruce Helander, who has long worn many hats (literally and figuratively) in the South Florida arts community — artist, writer, art dealer, curator, well-connected man about town. The book is little more than an excuse to string together nearly four dozen reviews Helander has written over the past several years, most done, as best as I can tell, for South Florida Art of the Times (the credits are vague).
But it's mostly a first-class production illustrated with more than 125 images, the majority in color. There's a foreword by the great Bonnie Clearwater, executive director of North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA); an introduction by former Picasso Museum director Gilbert Brownstone; and an essay by William Warmus, a critic, curator, and biographer. More than half of the pieces deal with exhibitions in South Florida venues, with an emphasis on MoCA (nine reviews), the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (four), and the sadly defunct Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (four); this adds welcome local flavor. There are also reviews of shows in places as far-flung as New York, Boston, Chicago, even Jerusalem. Such major artists as Louise Bourgeois, Willem de Kooning, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Roy Lichtenstein, Malcolm Morley, Dennis Oppenheim, Jack Pierson, and Andy Warhol put in appearances.
I don't always agree with Helander's assessments, which hardly matters. He has come into contact with many important people in the world of contemporary art and has had the good sense and taste to know what's worth looking at and writing about. That counts for a great deal.