There’s often only a thin line between artistic process and gimmick. For Joanne Lefrak’s Past As Presence, the concepts are separate, but there’s quite a bit of both.
Upon entering Box Gallery’s large, open space, the etchings on clear panels are nearly invisible and, when they are apparent, the etch marks themselves look like grease stains caught in the light.
A moment later, however, the pencil-gray shadows created by the etchings come into focus. They are pristine. Lefrak exacts Southwest landscapes that are pallid and airy, as if the desert grasses were caught while the summer wind and light rushed through them.
The process to create such solemn shadow images is lengthy. First, Lefrak takes a photo, reverses it on her computer and draws a grid atop it. With gridded black paper below as a guide, she then etches a large-scale version of the photo directly onto a piece of Plexiglas. The Plexiglas, in turn, is mounted a couple of inches from the wall, allowing the etching to cast a photorealistic shadow of the original photo.
Lefrak is at her best when depicting landscapes, and is deft at crafting the chaos of thatched grasses and the natural glory of light through trees. The calculated realism of these works is an understated marvel.
When she treats other subjects, such as Stan Lucero’s hand as it holds a photograph in “Cabezon (Stan Lucero with a photograph of Benny Lucero)” and emptied-out shelves in “Cabezon Store,” the shadows appear more like pencil sketches, with highly visible shading lines and crisscrosses. Though the end product is interesting in its own right, these sketch-like works lose the powerful realism of the landscape pieces.
Altogether, the collection is one of subdued gems. The experience of discovering the works themselves—finding definitive shadows from shimmery glass—is satisfying and complete. The tranquility, however, is soon shattered by the addition of collateral explications that provide context but don’t add to the works’ fullness.
Among the corpus, there are two images of the Trinity Site—“Trinity Site (At the Instrument Bunker)” and “Trinity Site (On the Outskirts of Ground Zero)”—quiet Southwest tableaux of one of the most deafening roars in history. “Rhapsody in August (Jungle Gym After Hiroshima)”—an image of a woman standing impassively by a knotted jungle gym—shows the after-effects of Hiroshima, an equally volatile location much more subtly hinted at by the tangled playground.
One identifies these dramatic locales only from a sheet of paper with the works’ names. And while the incisive titles add edginess and depth to the collection, they feel like incongruous add-ons.
In a slightly more successful addition, RCA headsets accompany several of the paintings. Lucero, the caretaker of Cabezon—a ghost town west of Santa Fe where many of the works are set—shares stories of the area. Audio tracks such as “Rattlesnake” or “UFO” complement “Cabezon Road,” about which there’s no indication of either snakes or UFOs.
One of the last pieces in the collection, a smaller piece titled “Remembering Sol LeWitt,” is a faint, modest etching that creates a wood-grain shadow upon the wall. The nod to the famous conceptualist’s “wall drawings” is neither a drawing nor directly on a wall. But the piece can be seen as an explication of the rest of Lefrak’s exhibition.
In The New York Times 2007 obituary for LeWitt, his work is called “deceptively simple” because, although he used basic geometric shapes, he used them according to complicated schema. His stacked cube structures or patterned wall drawings were never as simple as they looked, and often required whole teams of artists to complete them.
So it is for Lefrak’s pieces: They are more complicated than they seem. But perhaps they are more complicated than they need to be.