“Experimenting is what art is about,” Jens Rosenkrantz told his audience in the small, early 19th century rooms at Betts House last Saturday afternoon. Rosenkrantz’s exhibition Forward into the Past had opened there the evening before and he gave a gallery talk on the varied contents of the show, work he prefers to call “lens-based” rather than photography.
Whatever label given, the range of work here is consistently interesting and teasingly attuned to its setting, the oldest brick house in Ohio, built in 1804. Three downstairs rooms, used for exhibitions, have minimal furniture and window dressings so the sense of the architecture is clear. They are squarish, low-ceilinged and two contain fireplaces with mantels that provide additional display space.
In the front room, the form Rosenkrantz apparently invented for this exhibition dominates. Reproduced portions of old maps are rimmed at the bottom by his modern photographs. Both a sense of change and continuity are invoked, in the mixed manner that memory itself can provide.
The original maps are at the Main Public Library, Rosenkrantz says, adding that the Library’s generous map collection is largely not covered by copyright. He was able to photograph on the spot portions of the splendid 1920 Sanborn maps of Cincinnati, originally created as a fire insurance adjunct, to use for these works. Clarity is high. We see street names: Elder, McDowell and, of course, Clark Street, where Betts House itself stands.
Yellow-colored lots indicate wood frame construction, pink stands for brick or stone. For some of these pieces Rosenkrantz has toned down the color, one example of the continual tinkering he imposes on his work.
Having established the form, modern photography imposed on old maps, Rosencrantz proceeds to vary it from piece to piece. Elder Market, now called Findlay Market, is rimmed below by deliberately out-of-focus views of tenements on nearby streets, he says. Perhaps to suggest the long memories of the neighborhood? The map showing Washington Park is accompanied by a view of the area from the east, the Park itself blocked by buildings. In one piece, much smaller than the rest, the map is as dim as old memories and underlies the image of a slim brick steeple, worked over to appear more like a painting than a photograph.
In what is now called The Red Room, from its richly colored dark red walls, more conventional photographs, framed and matted, are shown. They appear to be sepia-toned black and white, as they lack the starkness of much black-and-white photography. We see a church’s white cross, angled against the sky because of the tilt of the camera, a conventional but nostalgia-inducing view of a curving railroad track, the vegetation suggesting it is not much used, a simple habitation made interesting by its worn paint. But this photographer’s itch to try something else appears in the small works on the mantel here.
Brightly colored photographs, mounted on birch wood panels eight inches square with inch-and-a-half sides so that they can stand on their own, usually reflecting a high viewpoint, are printed on linen paper and collaged (the artist’s phrase) onto the panels. Rosenkrantz is not one to let happy accidents pass; when the linen surface buckled on one, producing white areas like some odd snow fall, he considered it part of the work and included it in the show. But he says of his experiments, “the theories that didn’t work out aren’t here.”
Possibly the most inventive works are in the third room, where pictures mostly shot from his seventh floor Pendleton studio appear. He has mounted these photographs, printed on adhesive photo paper, to the glass of derelict window frames so that they become a view from a window. A shadowy snow scene photographed from high vantage point at Gabriel’s Corner, mounted in a six-sectioned white frame, its paint peeling, is something to keep coming back to. Two other window-frame mounted works feature dark, strong, almost surrealist colors.
Yes, Rosenkrantz uses a digital camera. “I don’t have the patience for film.” And no, he doesn’t use flash. His Betts House show, nicely tailored to that special place, is a rewarding pleasure.
FORWARD INTO THE PAST is on view at Betts House, 416 Clark St., Over-the-Rhine, through Feb. 28. More information at TheBettsHouse.org or 513-651-0734.