We are always coming upon the world from the wrong side in Duncan Oja’s faded, clouded, black-and-white shots of the ordinary rural American roadside, taken on solitary cross-country car trips. Oja’s subjects are signs seen from behind so that we cannot know what kind of response they are trying to solicit from us. The signs are situated in the often scrubby and never manicured and opulent landscape, so that we encounter them as though we were actually present at the site on one of those all too familiar leaden gray days that when they happen seem to be the most central standard reality for which bright sunny and dark inclement days are bookends. A typical image by Oja puts us on an asphalt side road fronting a chain-link fence behind which are parked several white semi-trailers at the right side of the frame. Some denuded trees on the right side and dead clumps of unkempt grass tell us that the halcyon days of summer have gone. A big rectangular sign signifying nothing looms from behind the trailers, not dominating the scene, but set within it, forming an integral element of its composition and the sensibility that it evokes. The same situation and feeling are present in all of Oja’s twenty medium-format prints; he gives us a relentlessly uniform take on the world. Does it matter for the weighty feeling that Oja communicates so well that the signs are opaque to us? The artist thinks so: “From behind the signs there is a simultaneous feel of presence and absence and the play between the two is what I came to enjoy most about this work.” Had Oja wanted the viewer to feel as he does about the images, he would have had to put the signs front and center. As it stands, the blankness takes us away from any sense of a particular place and lets us experience the pure mood of a day, distilled, straight and without any distraction. That’s even better than play. (Michael Weinstein)
Through September 21 at ARC Gallery, 2156 North Damen.