Saturday, October 29, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #5

This update is associated with my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency.

AIRIE Housing; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Notes from Days 12, 13, & 14:
- I had the privilege of joining Florida International University Honors College professors Peter Machonis and Devon Graham as they led their "Everglades: From beginning to end?" seminar class on a slough slog. Before we waded into the river of grass, I presented a short lecture on my artwork, the importance of biodiversity, and the Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP).

I wrapped up the talk by highlighting the Endangered Species Condom project, an ESPP collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity that aims to raise public awareness of the environmental impact of a burgeoning human population on natural resources, habitats, and thousands of critically endangered species around the world...and, of course, I distributed the Endangered Species Condoms to all in attendance.

The real fun started about an hour later, when we stepped into the water. As regular readers of HH know, I've seen plenty of flora and fauna from the roads and trails in my two weeks in Everglades National Park, but sloshing through sawgrass marshes and into two bald cypress stands provided another, more sensual prespective. We met countless spiders (all species unidentified, unfortunately), diminutive American green tree frogs, and Halloween pennant dragonflies (as well as other, unidentified dragonfly species) on our way to the cypress dome.

Once inside the dome's shaded, cooler, and humid environment, most of the students found seats on a hurricane-felled tree and the rest of us took up positions nearby. We ate lunch while the class described some of what they'd seen during our slog to the cypress stand. Afterwards, Peter led a discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, which the class recently read. As students offered their insights, a curious, juvenile American alligator swam close to our group, provoking some "ooo"s and "aww"s (admittedly, tyke gators are cute).

I kept my eyes peeled for the flow of a Burmese python through the water. The python population in the Everglades is one of the most celebrated invasive species concerns in the United States. The week before I arrived, rangers caught a python crossing Anhinga Trail, a popular park destination. The rangers killed and dissected the large reptile to learn what it had been preying on. The pythons aren't picky eaters and they grow to nearly 20 feet in length; the recent capture had only birds and water rats in its belly, but these invaders have been known to feed on fish, raccoons, river otters, bobcats, deer, and even the occasional alligator. One ranger remarked to me that he rarely sees small mammals in the park anymore. A decade ago, he told me, visitors were guaranteed to see marsh rabbits, Eastern cottontail rabbits, Eastern grey squirrels, and nine-banded armadillos along the park's roads, but I haven't seen even one of these animals during my two weeks here.

"Do you think the pythons are responsible?," I asked the ranger. He shrugged and said, "Well, it could be a coincidence. Rabbits have population boom-and-bust cycles." "What about the armadillos?," I asked. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "I'm not really sure about their populations. We can't prove anything yet." Some researchers now estimate that the established, breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is in the thousands.

Highlights of the slog (besides talking with some of the students and the professors) included seeing 2 American bitterns, a bird that I'm particularly fond of, and watching (and feeling) the mandibles of a grasshopper (unidentified as of yet) work on the the upper layer of my index finger's skin, scraping away little flecks of it, which the insect appeared to eat. It didn't hurt; it felt like a cross between being tickled and rubbed with a small piece of sandpaper. Had it been a larger grasshopper, I may not have been so obliging, but I enjoyed watching the insect at work.

Finally, I tip my hat to the aims of Peter and Devon. Their class curriculum is designed to introduce students to Everglades' natural history and "the political nature of local and regional environmental issues," but also to "read critically, to understand the interconnectedness of art, literature, and other disciplines." Amen! Its exactly the sort of generalist class I'd like to take....and the type of class I hope to one day teach. I hope that most of the students realize how fortunate they are to be a part of it.

- During the early days of my stay in the park, I didn't hear any cicadas. Now that the rain has become infrequent, however, I hear their clicking whine all day long. It reminds me of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, my home ground.

Tricolored Heron and Anhinga; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- While I watched, a male anhinga caught a bluegill in the flooded borrow pit by Anhinga Trail. The fish was at least 3 inches in length, and the anhinga decided that he'd better not attempt to eat the fish while still in the water. Unlike most fish-eating birds, anhingas have to throw the fish they catch up into the air, open their beak wide, and swallow the fish as it descends. It's quite a trick to see, especially when the fish, as in the case of this bluegill, is of a fair size. The anhinga waddled (like penguins, anhingas are evolved for diving and swimming, and they're graceless on land) up the grass slope at the borrow pit's edge, his catch held tight in his bill. He moved onto the paved trail and, surrounded by a small group of excited German tourists (and me), pulled off the fish tossing feat with aplomb.

Common Snapping Turtle; Main Road; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- I stopped for 2 more common snapping turtles crossing park roads. One of these was an especially fine model. I also rescued a Florida box turtle from harassment by two American crows. Whether the crows would have eventually gotten past the turtle's shell defense, I don't know, but corvids are clever birds and, though I'm very fond of them, I opted to spoil their fun and potential meal by moving the turtle off the road and into the undergrowth at the forest's edge. The crows clucked and rattled at me in disapproval.

Florida Box Turtle with American Crows; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- I had an on-the-move photo shoot with another road-crosser, an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. As it continued to move across the road and through the grass on the far side, it kept its head and one s-curve of its body angled toward me, prepared to strike were I to molest it. The encounter was a treat; I've long wanted to meet an Eastern diamondback outside of an enclosure and now I have! Like the cottonmouth I met earlier in my visit, this is a snake that I have no inclination to handle and examine more closely, so I don't know it's gender.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Sadly, not far from where I came upon the rattler, I found a dead, partially crushed and ant-consumed rough green snake, a beautiful species that, when alive, is a radiant emerald; even dead, they are pretty snakes. Not counting insects or the dead dog wasting away on the roadside outside of park land (there are many dogs with apparently negligent owners living near the park), this is the 3rd dead-on-road (DOR) critter I've found. A red-shouldered hawk and a great blue heron also lost their lives to cars during my time here. There are almost certainly others that I didn't happen to discover.

DOR Rough Green Snake; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Related post: "ESPP and an Everglades Slough Slog," at The Endangered Species Print Project Blog

Thursday, October 27, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #4

Pinelands; Everglades National Park; October 2011

This update is associated with my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency.

American Alligator; Long Pine Key Lake; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Notes from Days 9, 10, & 11:
- I danced a slow-motion tango with the American alligator pictured above. The animal was only about 6 feet long (which I presume is too small to view a full-grown human as a potential meal), but this gator's eyes may have been bigger than its stomach, so to speak.

When I initially approached the lake, the alligator was about 15 yards from the shore. I squatted at the water's edge to take some photos of periphyton, spongy masses of algae and microorganisms that play a critical role in the Everglades food web. Although I focused on the periphyton, I occasionally glanced at the alligator; in so doing, I realized that it was slowly, almost imperceptibly nearing my position. When it was about 10 yards away, it submerged. From where I crouched, I could see the dark shape of its body moving more rapidly toward me. I hopped up and retreated to a safe distance. The reptile moved within 8 feet of the shoreline and surfaced, its third eyelids retracting. It stared at me; I stared back. "Are you serious?," I asked, as though it understood. "Are you eyeing me, buddy?"

After a few minutes, the alligator submerged and moved away, to a spot near its original position. I approached the water, checking carefully to make sure I wasn't overlooking any other gators in the area, and again squatted. Moments after I did so, my cold-blooded friend sunk beneath the water's surface and moved toward me, as before.

This dance was repeated several times: the gator approaching, me retreating, the animal moving away, me approaching and crouching, repeat. I have to conclude that, when hunkered down, I appeared to be of a size that a hungry, 6-foot gator could take. The animal was moving into a position from which it could strike. While I doubt that it could kill me easily, I've no doubt that it could do me serious harm.

I decided to leave the area. As the old adage has it, no photo of periphyton is worth loosing a hand.

Periphyton; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Birds of special interest these three days: a peregrine falcon hunting at a field's edge, just outside the park; a common ground dove; and a barred owl that calls most evenings from a tree outside of my dormitory.

Rain Cloud Opening; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #3

Mahagony Hammock; Everglades National Park; October 2011

This update is associated with my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency.

Notes from Days 6, 7, & 8:
- Before this residency, I knew that the Everglades is a birder's paradise. I didn't really know this until I found myself excitedly fumbling with my binoculars as I threw the car into reverse, craned my neck out the window, and attempted to drive-by identify a fast-moving raptor...only to realize that there were also two curious-looking warblers in the pineland understory to my immediate right (and what IS that bizarre call I'm hearing)?!

To stay sane, you learn to focus on one bird (or flock) at a time. That means, of course, that you have to let many birds go unidentified, but the primary pleasure is watching, not cataloging.

Wood Storks; Pa-Hay-Ohee Overlook; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Still, every bird watching enthusiast suffers from some degree of census pathology. I've inherited my father's disdain for "ticket punchers," birders who prioritize a day- or lifelist over observation and the experience itself. By no means, however, am I immune to the compulsion. I scold myself when I catch myself frantically estimating numbers in a faraway flock -- "Is it 52 or 53? Damn it! I can't &@^$% tell for sure!" -- or fretting over the unidentified animal that may have been a notable rarity. (On a related note, I haven't seen "The Big Year" yet, but I'm looking forward to it.)

Since my last update, some of the avian highlights include 3 snail kites, wood storks aplenty, a solitary sandpiper, 2 groups of American avocets, and a great white heron (a bird that is cause of much ornithological debate: is it a species, subspecies, or simple color morph?).

Cottonmouth; Main Road; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- And my herpetophilia -- I use this term in a decidedly non-sexual sense! -- has been sated, too. At the western edge of the park's pinelands, I came upon a handsome cottonmouth basking on the warmth of the main road.

The Agkistrodon genus is among my favorites and, in my excitement, I took disappointing photos of the snake's shockingly white mouth lining, its namesake, which the species displays as a defensive threat. Not all of the photos were unusable, however; above, you can see the cottonmouth moments after it flashed me a warning. I enjoy handling snakes, but I harbor no impulse to pick up cottonmouths; their hemotoxic venom attacks tissue and can lead to necrosis at the bite site.

Eastern Racer; Ecopond; Everglades National Park; October 2011

An Eastern racer, on the other hand, I'll want to catch, sex (i.e., determine its gender), and inspect for parasites. I found a racer hunting anoles in the vegetation surrounding the Flamingo Eco Pond, but moments after I crouched and pushed my way into the bushes, I was forced to abort my mission by a mosquito assault the likes of which I haven't before contended with.

- The below photo, taken at the Flamingo Ranger Station, explains why I was so impressed by the mosquitoes. Hysterical, indeed! The ranger stationed there told me to avoid a number of the trails I'd intended to explore. She suggested I instead cruise the campground roads in my rental car.

Mosquito Meter; Flamingo Ranger Station; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Perhaps all that driving was partly responsible for the tire blow-out on Day 8? I was driving west on Tamiami Trail, heading to Naples to visit a high school classmate and go on a hike in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, when the tire gave out. A female red-bellied woodpecker tapped out some consolation as I changed the tire.

A pleasant highway patrol officer pulled over to check on me. I'm grateful that he did. The spare I'd put on was one of the mini tires that you don't want to limp along on for more than a few hours, and the policeman told me where the closest two tire shops open on a Sunday were located. I appreciated his advice to go to the farther of the two (in the suburbs of Miami) because it would be considerably cheaper, but his word choice -- "Don't go to the shop on the Indian reservation. They'll rape you." -- was, at best, poor.

Green Heron; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Art Practical: Michelle Fleck

Michelle Fleck
"Picket Fence"
Acrylic on panel
18 x 24 inches

My write-up of artist Michelle Fleck's "Somewhere," her solo exhibition at Park Life Gallery, is included in the most recent issue of Art Practical. The review appears in AP's Shotgun Reviews department. Read it here.

"Landscape in art," writes the English academic Malcolm Andrews, "tells us, or asks us to think about, where we belong." Fleck's paintings are part of this vital tradition, and are on view at Park Life through October 30th.

Image credit: courtesy Park Life Gallery and Michelle Fleck

Friday, October 21, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #2

American Alligator Under Water; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

This update is associated with my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency.

Notes From Days 4 & 5:
- The sun came out on Day 5! Southern Florida is beautiful now...bright, but not too hot because of a merciful breeze from the Gulf of Mexico.

- The birding continues to be tremendous. In addition to the "firsts" I mentioned in my previous update, I've now added an immature Northern parula, a group of blue-grey gnatcatchers, whose aerial acrobatics delighted me for a long while, and countless palm warblers. While Northern mockingbirds are by no means new to me, I did have an opportunity to watch a young mockingbird hunt an anole, kill and eat it, then meticulously clean his bill on a branch. Watching birds hunt, it's hard to understand why it took biologists so long to elucidate the relationship between dinosaurs, reptiles, and our feathered friends.

Great Egret; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Speaking of reptiles, my 5th day in the Everglades was made notable by 3 turtles. A juvenile common snapping turtle, an adult of the same species, and a Florida softshell turtle were all crossing the park's main road at different locations. I moved the juvenile snapper off the road, but elected to leave the adult to its own pace, hoping that its large size would compel drivers to slow down. Having watched a snapper peel the flesh off my father's index finger, I was reluctant to face the challenge of moving the testy reptile without assistance. The softshell turtle, however, didn't need my help. It lumbered with determination, and I simply escorted it across the road.

Florida Softshell Turtle; Main Road; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- Thinking about roads, though, I was disappointed that two passing vehicles failed to slow, blowing by me -- and the softshell turtle -- at 50 miles per hour (the speed limit on the main road is 55 mph). One wonders why folks come to a national park if they only intend to race across it. Some death toll is inevitable. I generally drive well under the speed limit (35-40 mph) and strive to be alert for flying critters; still, I've killed countless insects (most especially butterflies that seem to suddenly materialize in front of the car's grill) and very nearly knocked off two palm warblers that jumped from the shoulder.

- Tomorrow, I head to Florida Bay to look for American crocodiles.

Common Snapping Turtle; Main Road; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Update #1

Tricolored Heron; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

As expected, my WiFi access is limited to Florida City's Starbucks. Rather than spend too much of my two weeks in Florida driving between my dormitory in Everglades National Park and this too-cold coffee chain so that I can regularly check email and provide HH updates, I'll post sparingly. Following the residency, I'll write a substantial essay about my experiences here. I've having a terrific time, despite my catching a cold on the airplane and contending with near constant rain these first four days.

Tropical House Gecko; AIRIE Dorm Room View; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Notes From Days 1, 2, & 3:
- A sign at the park's entrance gate informs visitors that the mosquito level is "high." A friendly park employee told me there are many more mosquitoes than normal for mid-October and explained that the number is a result of above average rainfall. In two days, I've been bitten over a dozen times. I dislike the itching, of course, but I don't particularly mind being a critical part of the Everglades food chain (see the sign below).

Willingness to be fed upon aside, I'm also happy that I have a tropical house gecko as my roommate. Mosquitos may be small snacks for a gecko, but I like to think the lizard will prey on them as eagerly as it will larger insects (like cockroaches). Everglades biologists might appreciate having an insect eater in their homes, too, but they probably wouldn't smile on this particular species; the house gecko is one of three invasive gecko species in the Everglades.

Food Web Sign; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- There's been no sun since I arrived. The silver lining is that the park trails and roads are relatively uncrowded. On Anhinga Trail's "boardwalk," I sat for 15-20 minutes without another park visitor passing. In a nearby corkwood tree, I observed a female American redstart, an immature female black-and-white warbler, and a male black-throated blue warbler. All three of these bird species were "firsts" for me.

Stalking Great Egret; Anhinga Trail; Everglades National Park; October 2011

- I also watched two red-winged blackbirds hunt for insects by hopping from lily pad to lily pad on the surface of a flooded ditch, behavior I'd not seen before.

Water Lily; Taylor Slough; Everglades National Park; October 2011

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena (Christopher Reiger), 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

AIRIE Residency: Prologue

Tomorrow night, I'll fly from San Francisco to Miami, Florida. Early on Sunday morning, I'll drive a rental car southwest into the Everglades National Park, the site of my 2-week-long Artists In Residence In the Everglades (AIRIE) writing and art residency. In my application to the National Park Service program, I touched on one of the many reasons I want to explore a park and region that I haven't visited in many years.
"Each fall and winter, when I travel to my childhood home on Virginia’s tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, I assist my father on the farm, and also hunt, fish, and walk the fields, woods, and salt marsh. The mid-Atlantic wetlands are my home ground. Although I've traveled to a range of ecosystems in many countries, I'm intimately tied to the ecology of my youth. The sawgrass marshes and swamps of the Everglades are a subtropical version of Virginia’s wetlands, and I am eager to become better acquainted with the ecosystem."
I was generalizing. The marshes, mangrove and cypress swamps, and hardwood hammocks of the Everglades are a far cry from the mid-Atlantic salt marshes I grew up alongside, but there are some similarities I intend to consider (and write about) while in Florida.

One unfortunate likeness: mosquitoes. October is the last month of the warm, wet season in the Everglades; water levels will be high and biting insects, plentiful. Fortunately, birds and reptiles also thrive thrive in the Everglades, and I hope to be too distracted by creatures I enjoy watching to notice the drone of the "skeeters."

Most of my 2-week term will be devoted to hiking, writing, reading, and photography, but I plan to work on some painting and drawing studies, too. I'll present one lecture on art and ecology to a class from Florida International University, after which I'll join them for a "slough slog," an off-trail hike through the Pa-Hay-Okee, the Seminole name for the Everglades (which translates as "grassy waters"). I've inquired about "shadowing" wildlife researchers in the field and/or assisting park rangers with their work. I was informed this should be possible, so my fingers are crossed.

While at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency in Nebraska City, Nebraska, I provided regular updates about my experiences. I'd planned to do the same during my time in "America's Subtropical Wonderland," but no Internet connection is available in the park and the closest coffee joint with WiFi access is a 20 minute drive outside of the park, in what I expect is Florida City's suburban sameness. As a result, I'm not yet sure how often updates will appear. More to some point.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

ROA's Ark

East Village, New York City

I admire skillful street art, but I rarely feel compelled to photograph it. In early 2010, however, when I came upon the starling mural pictured above, I immediately reached for my camera. At the time, I didn't know anything about the artist; months later, I recognized the muralist's hand in an image I came across online. ROA, a Belgian artist whose animals adorn structures on four continents, is a rising star among street art aficionados.

London, England

Admittedly, my love of natural history and enthusiasm for animal imagery predispose me to ROA fandom, but the artist's bold, black-and-white technique is distinct and compelling, and most of his mural projects exhibit a clever site-specificity. This attention to location is most often compositional -- for example, the neck of a Limpkin-like bird passes between two windows on a building in Brooklyn, New York, with the bird's body below and the head above -- but ROA's strongest pieces are also conceptually playful: in Ancona, Italy, he painted a disheveled cormorant, a type of water bird, on the side of a large boat; elsewhere, a mole emerges from a pile of bricks; and a desiccated fish is painted on the side of a trailer near California's Salton Sea, a large salt lake in which most fish species are unable to survive. An enthusiastic amateur naturalist, I appreciate the context-appropriate nature of these works.

Zaragoza, Spain

Unfortunately, ROA doesn't always paint his creatures in or near their natural habitat. I love his giant anteater, pictured trotting along the side of a single-story building in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, but I wonder if the artist realizes that the species is extirpated north of Honduras. Still, because giant anteater fossils have been found in northern Mexico, let's give the artist the benefit of the doubt and interpret this piece as an observation about ecological change. A stylized blue whale rising from a sea of grass outside an abandoned factory in Moscow, Russia, however, is too far from an ocean to be rationalized. Its incongruity is amusing and the image is beautifully crafted, but the piece lacks the impact of ROA's more considerate efforts. No worries. ROA's terrific Virginia opossum in downtown Los Angeles, its prehensile tail wrapped around a stretch of the building's brickwork, more than makes up for the misplaced whale!

While my fondness for natural history makes me an unusually nit-picky viewer, it also means that I'm especially excited by the urban and exurban placement of ROA's rats, squirrels, starlings, herons, raccoons, cormorants, and skunks. These animals are hardy and adaptable, and have proven able to thrive in ecosystems dominated by human habitation. Many people dismiss these creatures as pests, but their presence in our lives is of significant value. As we become an evermore urban species, they are our most immediate connection to the undomesticated, non-human world. In this respect, ROA's murals are portraits of our closest neighbors.

From the "NUART Landmark Series"
Stavanger, Norway

Some of ROA's more elaborate murals depict great piles of dead animals. These call to mind the tables laden with rotting fruit, hunted game, and skulls that appear in many 15th century Northern European vanitas ("emptiness"), memento mori ("remember your mortality"), and ars moriendi ("art of dying") still life paintings. As their names suggest, all of these allegorical works were created as nods to death's inevitability. It seems these themes preoccupy ROA, too. One of his best memento mori works is located in Stavanger, Norway. Lifeless squirrels, rats, rabbits, and herons are heaped at the foot of an old warehouse, with the limp necks of the herons apparently tied to cords on the wall's face (should we call this reverse trompe l'oeil?) In Mexico City, ROA adds a raccoon, armadillo, and skunk.

Mexico City, Mexico

These murals will seem grotesque and bleak to some viewers, but they aim to inspire by reminding us that life is transitory. The sentiment was expressed well by Steve Jobs during his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, a speech that, in the wake of Jobs' untimely death from cancer, has been making Internet rounds. Jobs said,
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."
In many respects, ROA's works are the less refined kin of Walton Ford's paintings. Both artists address mortality and the relationship of humanity to other animal species with humor and finesse, but ROA's pictures are less layered with art historical and natural history references; as a result, they're more accessible and immediately gratifying.

Based on the images he shares on his Flickr photostream, the talented 30-something has at least five murals in San Francisco. Let's hope that he returns to the Bay Area and contributes more of his handiwork to our landscape.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Bike Tree

After being featured in the September/October 2011 issue of Sierra, the Sierra Club's magazine, the above photograph of a pine tree that has grown around a child's bicycle has been making Internet rounds.

Berkeley Breathed, a one-time hero of mine, apparently created a children's book about this very "bike tree." I'll have to pick up a copy of Red Ranger Came Calling.

Image credit: Photo by Ethan Welty/Tandem

Monday, October 03, 2011

Review In Brief: Mary Ellen Bartley's "Books"

Mary Ellen Bartley
"Untitled 49," from "Paperbacks"
Archival pigment print
12 x 18 inches

San Francisco's resident bibliophiles will have a hard time resisting photographer Mary Ellen Bartley's subject matter. The two most successful pictures in "Books," Bartley's solo outing at Corden/Potts Gallery, are part of the artist's "Paperbacks" series. "Untitled 44" and "Untitled 49" are particularly elegant tributes to the book as formal object; in both, paperback books are photographed against a light grey background, their fore edges or tails facing the camera. The book tails in "Untitled 49" resemble impasto strokes of oil paint, and the simple composition and subdued palette call to mind the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi.

Mary Ellen Bartley
"All The More Real," from "Standing Open"
Archival pigment print
18 x 27 inches

In the company of "Paperbacks," Bartley's "Standing Open" and "Blue Books" series are relatively weak. "Blue Books" is too contrived; the artist arranges blue-covered hardbacks in Rothko-like compositions that are attractive, but bland. For "Standing Open," Bartley photographs the fore edges of partially open books in close-up, so that the pages create stripes and, in the artist's words, "shadowy voids [...] that read like burns or stains." The fine concept is diminished by Bartley's decision to shoot artist monographs; the imagery printed on the pages of these collections too often dominates our attention, distracting from the series' formal impetus.

Mary Ellen Bartley's "Books" is on view through October 29, 2011, at Cordon/Potts Gallery (49 Geary St., Ste. 410, San Francisco, CA).

Image credits: Mary Ellen Bartley photographs, courtesy Cordon/Potts Gallery