Two Long Beach photography shows - Ellen Butler's "Zen and Now: Photographs in the Present Moment" at Utopia Restaurant and John Montich's "Multiple Sightings" at Stone Rose Gallery - lift viewers out of their comfort zone. They make them question whether what they see corresponds to what they know. Both do so with ambiguity and, to varying degrees, humor and trompe l'oeil. Because the techniques are flawless, we're not as much aware of the photographer as we are of a window they've created. By stirring our complacency, these windows suggest that recognition is fluid, that first and sometimes second impressions are not always stable. You walk away with a heightened appreciation of how things pedestrian can, at the very least, brim with potential for humor and even wonder.
If you didn't know that Ellen Butler was a photographer, you'd swear these pieces were paintings, paintings of exquisite touch and sure-handed refinement. The work seems paintless. At first glance, you'd mistake these photographs for early Modernist paintings. Some of her photographs remind you of Salvador Dali: Figures melt like butter, lolling across the picture plane like Mobius Strips. One resembles a Giorgio Morandi still life; one bears a resemblance to a Kazimir Malevich monochrome; others resemble the Precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler.
Of course, they're not paintings; they're photographs, each one of which serves as a private little investigation into shadow and hue and compositions both organic and geometric. Set in a busy restaurant, the photographs are as animated and individual as the patrons. They hold their frozen moment a moment longer than is comfortable, the better to get you to give each one the attention it deserves.
If Butler's photographs focus on the lusciousness of the subject -- it texture, its dissolving forms -- Montich's are more playful. As with Butler, Montich's photographs confound your initial expectation that something is what it seems to be and not something else. Fireworks turn out to be palm fronds; a pair of droopy eyes turns out to be the headlights of a rusted car; a vault of a cathedral turns out to be a corridor of palm trees. Multiple images -- or the intimations of such -- are overlaid to form a single image. It's up to you to complete the piece, to ascertain the ambiguity in the natural and the man-made. It becomes a life-long habit.
If you're amenable to the stewardship that art can provide, the work shows you how the fullness of experience (and everything else) unfolds over time. With their technique, mood, and respective dynamic, they encourage you to pay them more than a passing glance. The rewards are worth the effort. Providing correlations that at first seem unexpected but once understood seem inevitable, the results are fascinating, humorous, and unlikely. In an era of skepticism what better protocol than to deal with each piece (each person, each situation) on a one-on-one, face-to-face basis?
John Montich, "Multiple Sightings." Gallery hours are 12-6pm, Wednesday & Thursday, 12-7pm, Friday & Saturday. The exhibition runs until February 22. The gallery is located at 342 East 4th Street, Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information call (562) 436-1600 or visit www.stonerosegallery.com.
Ellen Butler, "Zen and Now: Photographs in the Present Moment." Restaurant hours are 12 - 10pm, Monday through Friday, 5-10pm, Saturday. The exhibition runs until March 8. The Restaurant is located at 445 East 1st Street, Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information call (562) 432-6888 or visit www.utopiarestaurant.net.