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Photographs celebrate architectural forms

It's fashionable in some photographers' circles to decree that buildings alone are boring, static and lacking in animation, and thus not worth the time and materials necessary to portray them.

This doctrine is counter, of course, to 180 years of photographic history and is risible. Indeed, the image regarded as the first photograph, "View from the Window at le Gras," by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, made about 1826, is a photograph to which buildings are central.

The fascination of great photographers with buildings for their formal, abstract, metaphorical and narrative qualities has continued from the time of Niepce until the present day, from the days of William Henry Fox Talbot to those of Hiroshi Sugimoto. The two disciplines are infinitely marriageable, and from these marriages images of enormous affective power have resulted time and time again.

Last week, the new Gallery Urbis Orbis, opened its doors with "Environments," a show of two St. Louis photographers whose art is intricately developed with images of the built world. The two photographers work in entirely different ways, intellectually and visually, yet for both urban architecture is central.

Veteran rock musician and photographer Bob Reuter's photographs are haunting. In many of them, there is a suggestion that someone has passed through the scene immediately before the shutter was released. His focus is soft, as is the unconscious, but within this soft-focus world of ambiguity there is genuine power. One looks, for example, out of a warehouse building and into a slice of city that's recognizable to anyone who has spent time in the western fringes of downtown St. Louis.

But what matters is not so much the place but the way the artist's framing of it speaks of the passage of time and the ways in which darkness and light affect the emotions and the imagination. Architecture and the city provide the matrix for the artist's observations.

That picture is titled "My Town." Other photographs by Reuter are more abstract, such as "Fan," which is just that, but it is a fan placed in the context of a building. "Jesus Saves" is a photograph of the front of a modest church, and an expression of a rather fundamental religiosity. Same goes for a group of crucifixes of many different sizes and many different styles, fanciful variations, one guesses, on the original torture and execution. Architecture, of course, supports and contains the objects.

Ken Konchel's photographs are more straightforward studies of architectural form, and on one level, it's fun to figure out which St. Louis building is represented by small details in his pictures. Often it is easy if you've looked around at the city's architectural heritage. A few are so abstract as to be mystifying.

But abstraction, after all, is what these photographs are about, and the effort in which Konchel is involved is considerably more substantial than a game of Name That Building. They also provide a crisp contrast to the gauzy mystery of the work of Reuter.

Konchel investigates both lowly buildings and monuments and finds comparable riches in both. For example, "Streamlined" is a detail of an overhang and the decorative brick wall of a dentist's office on the Hill. It is a modest detail, but one of enormous beauty and symmetry. So is "Escape," which examines the spiraling beauty of one of the circular fire escapes that used to be all over the place in downtown St. Louis. Either of these images is as powerful as Konchel's examination of more conspicuous and "important" structures - the Planetarium, for example, and the graceful crown of the Priory Chapel. He tends to equalize buildings in his examinations of their special parts. Pure form is celebrated, rather than monumentality.

His best work, as far as I'm concerned, is that which moves in close and relieves the viewer of any tendency to make guesses about the origin of the image. For example, viewers will probably know that "Ribbons" is the Famous-Barr garage exit ramp, but the "where" in this photograph becomes irrelevant, and shape and form assume powerful relevancy.

This exhibition includes Konchel's "Architectonic," a fine observation of a detail of Eads Bridge. This picture got prominent play in Carolyn Hewes Toft's "St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts" (2002, Landmarks Association of St. Louis).

Konchel's and Reuter's photographs form an exhibition that is perfect for this renaissance moment in the history of one of the nation's most architecturally robust streets, Washington Avenue. Urbis Orbis, which means the World of the City, is located smack in the middle of the redevelopment action, next door to Tangerine, and at the heart of some fresh art-gallery action.

The Des Lee Gallery is up the street at 1627 Washington; its curator, painter Philip Slein, is opening his own gallery in the fall with a big painting show. The well-established Jeffrey Hartz Gallery is at 1136 Washington Avenue, and Maryanne Simmons' Wildwood Press is also at 1627 Washington.

Reporter Robert W. Duffy:
Phone: 314-340-8128



Photographs by Bob Reuter and Ken Konchel

When: Noon-8 p.m. Friday, noon-6 p.m. Saturday and by appointment; through April 26

Where: Gallery Urbis Orbis, 1409 Washington Avenue

More info: 314-406-5778


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