It’s safe to say that artist and journalist Alexandra Penney is a bit of a feminist powerhouse. Not only did she create the iconic pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, but her work has returned time and again to women’s issues, whether she’s serving at the helm of Self Magazine or making photographs of blowup sex dolls as commentary on women and objectification. Throughout her fine-art career, she has continued to revisit one other subject: flora.
With her black and white swamps— on view as part of her solo exhibition Fractured Botanicals at The Curator Gallery — Penney was motivated in part by other women artists, including photographer Sally Mann, who have found moments of beauty and discovery in wetland landscapes. Throughout the course of the project, she has traveled to Georgia, Florida, and parts of Louisiana in search of swamps that transport her to another, preternatural realm.
The photographer was drawn to swamps, as she puts it, “immediately” upon her first sighting more than a decade ago at a family event in New Orleans. Here, in the stillness of nature, she found a rare blend of sophistication and prehistory; these were places time forgot, standing much as they had been at the time of human origin. She likes the atmosphere best perhaps in the late afternoon and early evening, when the descending shadows cut across her line of vision to reveal hazy and uncanny figures in the distance.
The swamps featured in Fractured Botanicals aren’t typical landscape images; in fact, Penney has painstakingly altered them using a technique she’s honed over a decade. Curator Bill Shapiro likens Penney’s images to “digital impressionism" – each is captured on a digital camera with a low pixel density and subsequently subjected to manipulations executed in studio.
Over the course of seven days or more, Penney digitally works the images until they begin to disintegrate into a configuration of tiny dots. Ancient cyprus trees are plunged into the present era through the introduction of modern technology, and the organic and the manufactured collide, alternately harmonizing with one another and dueling for control. The photographer relishes most the unlikely fusion of these two once-warring entities, and she admits that it’s not a reach to tie that idea to the gender-related themes in her other bodies of work: “That nature is often associated with femininity and technology with masculinity is one more important shading of this duality,” says the artist.
Still, the work is enigmatical enough to speak to broader tensions or resolutions implied by the marriage of dichotomous elements. Our planet and its wonders, suggests the artist, won’t last forever if we continue to pollute and exploit our land. Here, as in real life, the earth and its landscapes have been fractured, but they linger still at a point of stasis—like a drawn breath soon to be exhaled— before being shattered into so many unrecognizable pixels.
Fractured Botanicals opens September 10th at The Curator Gallery in Chelsea, 520 West 23rd Street.