x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

An array of altered images

Dubai's Empty Quarter gallery could provide a respite from the heat from a wintery collection of minimalist, black and white works.

Cooling off in the austere atmosphere of the Empty Quarter gallery.
Cooling off in the austere atmosphere of the Empty Quarter gallery.

The heat may have finally arrived, but the artworks on display at Dubai's Empty Quarter gallery evoke all the bleakness and solitude of winter. Although not governed by a single theme, the fine-art photography gallery's latest exhibition is almost entirely made-up of high-contrast minimalist, black and white images. Among them are the US-based photo artist Lou Raizin's collection of snowy landscapes, Seasons of Solitude - the most explicitly cold and wintery group of pictures on display. They show the dark trunks and branches of distant, leafless trees, perhaps with their shadows and the line of the horizon also visible. The images are manipulated in a way that leaves the subject surrounded with acres of empty space. Some also show scattered birds flying above the trees, distant dog-walkers and snow-covered park benches.

At first, they resemble black and white watercolours, with gently smudged shadows. But closer inspection reveals another level of detail. The effect is achieved by shooting the subject from far away in soft focus, as well as a combination of techniques to achieve the high contrast. Also on display are the Belgian artist Jean Claude Wouters's fuzzy, near-abstract images, captured in shades of grey - continuing the exhibition's minimalist theme. His work is influenced by Japanese art, but not the colorful, oriental images that first come to mind. The picture might be something as simple as a branch hanging over water, but it is then manipulated and eroded by the artist, bringing another dimension to the piece.

Wouters creates his works by finding pre-1935 photography, often from postcards or framed pictures. He then distresses the image and paints over portions of it. It is then re-photographed and printed on large rolls of paper. The theme continues with the Iranian Mohammadreza Mirzaei's sparse urban environments. He makes even greater use of negative space than the other artists on display at the gallery, which is saying something. The pieces in his Humans collection are comprised of park scenes, taken in Tehran. They include walkers, people sitting on park benches and the occasional shrub.

Like Raizin's work, the pictures scarcely resemble photography at first, with the entire sky obliterated and left as huge blocks of white space. The images take up only a tiny bottom portion of the pieces and it can be difficult to make out much detail in the works, beyond the outlines of human bodies. But also like Raizin's pieces, a closer look reveals a shading and definition that would almost certainly elude a painter or graphic artist.

Both Mirzaei and Raizin are guilty of an old cliché: that nothing connotes solitude like an empty park bench. Raizin is most effective when showing images that are not so inextricably linked with people. The straight rows of trees at first seem like a depiction of nature, until you realise that nature doesn't work in perfectly straight lines, nor does it make trees of a uniform height. Mirzaei also conveys solitude effectively, but ironically, uses groups of people to achieve it. Despite many of the landscapes including groups, interaction amongst them is non-existent and even seems to be hindered by large columns of white space.

Of all the images on show, Jean Claude Wouters' giant distressed pictures, showing obliterated faces and settings, are undoubtedly the most confident. It is a testament to his conviction that the artist makes only one copy of his works and hands the buyer the negative in a box of sand, slowly eroding the ability to create another image. As the outside world becomes increasingly inhospitable, the work on show at The Empty Quarter may feel like an oasis of cool at first, but be warned, some of the pieces on display are as bleak and troubling as they are enjoyable.

The exhibition runs at The Empty Quarter gallery in DIFC until June 15. * Oliver Good