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Texas Rangelands: The Photographs of Burton Pritzker

January 25 through April 18, 2004

 

Ethereal views of Texas, interpreted through the commonplace cow, are on view at the El Paso Museum of Art in the De Wetter Gallery Texas photographer Burton Pritzker has moved beyond the human figures, plants and geographic landscapes of his previous work to incorporate Texas' most enduring symbol -- the basic bovine -- in the vast spaces of Texas.

 

TEXAS RANGELAND: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF BURTON PRITZKER

 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

 

Transcendent, primordial, passionate: these are not words that we ordinarily associate with cattle. Yet Burt Pritzker's photographic image making elevates his humble subject matter to a metaphysical level, conveying its most essential characteristics. His elegant, formalist compositions explore themes much loftier than their points of departure, and photography, the most transmutable of artistic processes, is the ideal medium for Pritzker's investigations. We can easily mistake his micro-views of bovine backs, horns, and eyes for landscapes, night skies, and moonscapes. At the same time, they reveal the "cattleness" of their subjects -- the amazing contrast of delicacy and brute power, the softness of ear and mouth; the wrinkled skin, massive muscles and stolid character that add up to something more. (right: Burton Pritzker, "Cows #1, Henley, Texas." gelatin silver print. El Paso Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist.)

Pritzker began the Texas Rangeland series during a drive near Big Bend in 1995, when he stopped to photograph a Brahma bull that he spotted standing in a pasture near the road. He found his own choice of subject matter startling; he had never before considered cattle as a fit motif. His previous work portrayed human figures, plants, and geologic and architectural structures.

Pritzker's work is informed not only by his own profound, direct experiences with his subjects, but also by artworks he has seen during his travels, including eighteenth century Japanese calligraphy paintings and the rock gardens at the Ryoanji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan. Like these Buddhist-inspired masterworks, Pritzker's photographs possess the qualities of simplicity, quietude and reconditeness. As Pritzker explains,

 

"At the core of my photography lies the belief that 'Everything is also something else.' When I look at anything through a camera, I sense another world, another reality beyond what I see. If the photograph I take is successful, that 'other world' comes into being almost by magic, a kind of alchemy. My aim is not to record something, it is to reveal something else."

 

An intrinsic feature of Pritzker's photographs is their preoccupation with light. In Steer #7, Art, Texas, we may easily imagine his subject transformed into the landscape of an alien planet. The spots of the steer's hide become lunar craters, and the gentle slope of his humped neck, a hillside, marked with the delicate vertical canals of Mars. The inner surface of the polished horn, interjected into the foreground space, radiates clear reflected light as perfectly as a crescent moon. Cow #16, Mason, Texas, reveals a similar luminescence. The cow's drooping ears appear as ephemeral ghosts, while the planes of her face are starkly lit and deliberately grainy, shaped by a chiaroscuro of perfect blackness.(right: Burton Pritzker, "Steer #7, Art, Texas." gelatin silver print. El Paso Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist.)

Pritzker's minimalist sensibility manifests his interest in Asian art:

 

"Forms can take me beyond what they seem, to something that strikes a deep chord in me. It is as if the form were a portal into a realm where 'everything is something else.' When the form, light and composition are synchronous, in phase, there is always a palpable feeling that tells me I am on to something, at which point I strive to simplify, to strip away unnecessary elements that distract from the essence of the experience. I am called upon to tell a story and convey a feeling with an economy of means. Economy is power and I am in its grip."

 

The Texas Rangeland photographs may also be recognized by their almost heartbreaking beauty -- a quality often considered unfashionable in contemporary art. Pritzker acknowledges the vital role that emotion plays in his work, and characterizes himself as a "romantic modernist operating in a post-modern era." His work is free of sentimentality, yet is infused with significance.

Burt Pritzker's photographs celebrate the mysterious, alchemical transformation of light and silver halide crystals into images that carry multiple layers of meaning in each grain. His cattle speak to us about their characters, and reveal as well a profound message about the nature of our own existence.

Teresa Hayes Ebie
Curator

 

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