Rhona Shand, Muribund Ideologies, 2001 (credit: mocp.org)

By Amy Cavanaugh

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When you look at a painting or drawing, you’re not surprised when you see artwork that’s abstract or presents a spin on its subject. But with photography, there’s the sense that what you’re seeing is an accurate depiction of the world. However, that’s not always the case—a show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Limits of Photography,” explores what happens when artists challenge the medium and manipulate it in compelling ways.

Curator Rod Slemmons included work by 10 artists, each of whom approach photography in unique ways. Rhonda Shand uses digital tools to merge illustration and photographs. The result is works like “Rapunzel,” an image of a house with a line of clothes hanging outside and fairly ominous hands pressed against an upstairs window. Shand ramps up the creepy factor by blurring the image just enough to make it look like the clothes could be ghosts. Similarly, in “Untitled (Bad Girl),” Shand presents an image of a girl whose face is distorted through blurring. Shand’s statement says that she’s trying to “understand the fragility of human identity and the nature of being” by looking at the “liminal states that everyone goes through as they find, lose, and continually rebuild their ideas of self.” Her blurred realities are striking, and a reminder that people and everything we see are constantly changing.

Randy Hayes, Pass Christian Mississippi, 2011 and Kyoto Japan, 2011 (credit: mocp.org)

Randy Hayes’ work combines photographs and paint in “Ruins of Mississippi and Other Places,” his series that merges images of Hurricane Katrina destruction with photographs of ruins from places like Rome and Athens. On display here is “Pass Christian/Kyoto,” which Hayes made by printing photographs he took in Mississippi and Japan and painting them over with pictures of large Japanese-style houses. The work sets a relatively recent American tragedy against ancient ruins, and asks the viewer to consider how history, tradition, and memory are tied to place.

Perhaps the most riveting work is Chris Naka’s “I Can’t Feel My Face,” a video shot on an iPhone that shows a hand scrolling through photographs on an iPad. The photos shown are presumably of the artist, and he ages backwards from an adult to child. The piece brings to mind questions associated with our age of being constantly attached to our devices. How do photographs change when we only see them through small digital screens? Is a digital image an effective substitute for a printed photograph? Is one more real than the other? The piece draws you in and makes you think about how you look at Facebook albums and Twitpics, and all the other digital media associated with our ubiquitous social media.

No one would look at the works on display in “Limits of Photography” and automatically think that this is strictly a photography show. That’s what makes the show successful—it’s a thoughtful look at what artists can do with a medium that seems so straightforward.

The show runs through March 25.

Amy Cavanaugh, CBS Chicago