all things together, an essay

November 5, 2008

this essay was written by the wonderful Sabrina Deturk

(click photos for larger versions)

The singular acquires universal relevance in Manuel Dominguez Jr.’s photographs.  Frequently focusing on one object or person, these sometimes stark still lifes, portraits, and landscapes afford the viewer a glimpse of the artist’s world as well as a new vantage point on our own lived environment.

In Dead Bird, North Philadelphia, and Heart Balloon, North Philadelphia, the artist highlights a single subject against a pale, almost white, background – pavement in the case of Dead Bird and a cloudy sky behind Heart Balloon.  In each case, the mundane is elevated to the significant.  The wretched and exposed form of the hatchling fallen from its nest simultaneously draws the viewer in and repulses us with its rawness.  The photograph offers a meditation on death, a memento mori, and the fact that its subject would generally be thought insignificant only increases our awareness of the leveling that is achieved through death.  Heart Balloon, in contrast, can be seen at its purely symbolic level as a reflection of love.  However, this balloon is not tethered to a happy couple – instead it floats alone before an overcast sky, reminding us, perhaps, that love itself is not an uncomplicated emotion and can be fleeting as much as steadfast.

Many of Dominguez’ images are portraits of one type or other and in the series of works shown here Yosuke, Philadelphia stands out as a stunning example of the artist’s skill in this genre.  The subject is shown in three-quarter view, against a neutral background, and with lighting that emphasizes the face emerging from dark, shoulder-length hair.  The composition and colors call to mind 17th Century Dutch portraits such as those by Frans Hals.  It is the character of the subject, as revealed through the eyes and his facial expression, that matters here – surroundings are secondary and serve only to heighten the viewer’s focus on the sitter himself.  In a completely different way, Jason, Bird Tattoo, Philadelphia, an image of a young man twisting his torso toward the camera to show a newly inked tattoo, uses the background to frame the subject and to direct our attention around the image.  A painting on the wall behind the sitter draws the viewer’s eyes upward so that we see his face, a component of the photograph that does not attract immediate attention.  And on that face is registered a slightly shy and uncertain expression, as though the young man whose decorated body hints at a comfort with self-exposure is not what he first appears.

Katie’s Hand, North Philadelphia in some ways bridges or combines the themes present throughout Dominguez’ work – his interest in both the universal and the particular.  Until reading the title, we have no way of knowing that this hand, reaching around a large wooden door, has significance and an identity for the artist.  It is at once a particular hand and a stand-in for all hands – except that there is a portrait-like quality to its representation; there is care taken in the presentation of this hand.  One is reminded of Alfred Stieglitz’ photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands – at once abstract forms and yet so lovingly and particularly rendered as to become famous as portraits of a single individual.

Exploring the tensions between singularity and universality may be one of the hallmarks of Manuel Dominguez Jr’s’ work – in this series of photographs, such exploration yields rich visual rewards.

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