Nineteenth-century processes are fascinating, to say the least, and this work by John Opera, who earned his MFA at SAIC, has taken the concept to a whole new level in his stunning show at Document. Opera works with a process using gum arabic and pigment on stretched canvas. The resulting prints are beautiful—the colors seem otherworldly, the images crafted with soft-focus delicacy.
The subtlety is pronounced in the exhibition’s publicity photograph of a doppelganger for a young John or Sean Lennon, including rimless round glasses. His face in its turtleneck is pale, his hair reflects light, but it is his glasses that draw the viewer’s eye. The lenses are like opalescent milk glass, yet transparent enough to see his eyes through them. Other portraits, which I learned are of Opera’s students, gaze outward with the same disaffected stare, only one of them looking forward, a quarter of a face, with a single sea glass-colored eye that stares directly at the viewer. Although some of the images are rendered in faint multi-colors, two prints, a deep rose-colored image of a youth in a hoodie, and a sky-blue image of a young woman with dark shoulder length hair are strongly monochromatic.
There are also several images of plant life. Two of the photographs form enticing abstractions of palm fronds, but the most graphically exquisite image is of a cactus, each of its sections viewed from above appearing to be individual small cacti or a collection of minute fireworks.
In one of the show’s remaining images, a round form fills and spills beyond the canvas. It is golden, complete with a halo and a white-hot center in homage to the photographic process, one might imagine. The other image, in a subtle gray black, is as dynamic as the rest of the show is still and calm. Rays move outward from the center as if a whirling helix is caught mid-motion.
The students Opera portrays will finish school and go on to live their lives, the plants will eventually wither and be replaced by other plants, but in the moments Opera has captured, these impressive images are on the wall to be studied and enjoyed.
John Opera, “The Observers” at Document, 1709 West Chicago. Through February 25.