Place in time 

Nature takes center stage at Jackson Fine Art

Michael Kenna's soft, serene photographs are more than studies in nature and landscape. The British-born photographer's portraits of winter-bare trees and sentinel rock formations suggest stand-ins for a culture, too. All were taken in the Japan of the show's title and have the aesthetic delicacy, composure and reverence for nature that typify that regional sensibility.

"Bamboo Harbor Guides" is, on the surface, a beautifully quiet study of bamboo stakes festooned with scraps of fabric and driven into the soil beneath a lake. But the degree of finesse and caution implied in boats steering clear of the fragile spires says something about a place where order and grace are divinely privileged. Kenna's lovely photographs of Japan are as much about the emotional life of a place as the lush decay of Andrew Moore's photographs of Havana in a previous Jackson Fine Art show.

Honing in on the most starkly simple of objects, Kenna's sepia-toned silver-gelatin photograph of a "Falling Tree" shows his gift for using nature to profound emotional and metaphorical effect. Set against a background erased of distracting detail, Kenna's trees become as distinct and idiosyncratic as human beings. A portrait of a magnificent winter-stripped tree bowing down to touch a lake's surface echoes a human gesture of humility. In "Hilltop Trees," a sentry-line of bare trees, black and skeletal against a bone- colored winter sky, appear to wait at the lip of a valley, as if regrouping before heading onward.

In work that is often sublime, but that can also veer into the inertly pretty, Kenna photographs a quality of stillness that makes nature a bewitching remedy from civilization.

The pairing of Kenna with Scott Peterman is a natural in this two-artist show at Jackson Fine Art. Despite very different approaches, both present simplicity with an underlying poetic effect.

At first glance, Kenna's photographs seem to come from a classical tradition where values of beauty and technical skill are esteemed while Peterman -- a graduate of contemporary photography's incubator, the Yale University MFA program -- comes from a conceptual, "brainier" camp. Peterman's color photographs of Maine ice fishing huts have everything to do with a human-made world while Kenna's work is more often about nature. But both manage to speak eloquently about human presence despite the absence of people.

The photographs in Ice Houses and Landscapes are about architecture and minimalism and the wry contrast of yawning open space with claustrophobically confining space.

The knotty plywood, metal siding, stilt foundations and the peculiarities of each fishing hut are framed in Peterman's series against a void of all-consuming white snow, sky and ice. The work brings to mind photographers like Lewis Baltz and Todd Hido, who have documented suburbia as a depopulated zone. Civilization stands alone in Peterman's images, too. The huts in some sense serve as proxies for the defiant, fingernail-dug-in human hold on an often-inhospitable Earth. Each hut has been lashed with yellow nylon cord or rope to the glassy lake surface in defiance of nature's windy open hostility. If Kenna's images are of the harmonious dimension to nature, which allows enormous trees to survive storm and frost to exist for centuries, Peterman's huts are comic studies in humankind's adversarial efforts to "tame" nature while huddling beneath plywood and Polartech.

Though Kenna and Peterman come from two different photographic traditions, they also exhibit interesting overlaps and flip-flops when placed side by side. Just as Kenna's trees and moody collision of sky and water link formalist beauty with a metaphorical treatment of place, Peterman's are not simply statements about humankind's difficult coexistence with nature. Peterman's works are also formalist. Suggesting Mark Rothko or Piet Mondrian, his beautifully executed compositions of the grid-like graphic features of the huts set against a white blankness of snow and sky have obvious associations to the likewise blank painter's canvas.

Unique in their approaches, both Kenna and Peterman profit from each other's company. u

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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