One fish, two fish

Submerged explores the day-glo world of the ocean deep

Lisa Jordan’s Submerged at Tula Art Center’s Momus Gallery is a survey of sea life both real and imagined. These photographs of jellyfish, seashells and fish taken by the artist on exotic snorkeling missions or gallivants to international aquariums have a lollipop sheen and comparably candied palette of chemical blues, neon reds and antifreeze greens.

Jordan captures one pylon-orange fish in “Spotted” with hot pink markings like something out of the designer Stephen Sprouse’s ’80s collection. Other marine-psychedelia, like a portrait of crisscrossed seaweed, is rendered in an intense blend of green and orange. “Sea Grass” is set against an ultra-aqua sea, as if ’50s Technicolor king Frank Tashlin, not Mother Nature, were the ocean’s architect. Works like “Sea Grass” and “Spotted” look like objects viewed in a living room fish tank rather than slices of sea life. Colors are often so intense in Submerged that they defy imagination and certainly our understanding of nature’s assumedly subdued color palette. That interplay of what is real and what is fabricated is part of Jordan’s apparent mission. She hints at the variety and outrageousness of life in the oceans that share our planet but remain a hidden, unexplored mystery for so many of us.

Jordan’s counterpoint to all this oceanic flora and fauna are silly renditions of cartoonish glass fishes and octopi. In “Gluttony” for instance, the artist renders the Jessica Rabbit-version of “fish” — an absurdly pouty pop-eyed flirt that puckers its enormous crimson lips as if to plant a kiss on Neptune himself. In similarly Disneyish images arranged in a block of nine 4-by-6-inch photos there is a seahorse with a curlicue tail, a swordfish wearing a sly expression and a school bus yellow octopus. The works are self-consciously fraudulent visions of what goes on in the kiddy fantasy world “down there.”

Jordan seems to be making some contrast between these faux-fishy images of glass sea creatures on one hand with the similarly vivid, outrageously colored actual marine life in other works. But Jordan also includes additional C-prints and black-and-white images in a more realistic mode, which contrast with this aforementioned strain of artifice. For example, the image of the rippled, delicate, translucent contours of a jellyfish body in “Jelly” are authentically detailed, in stark contrast to some of the other work. In a smaller number of black-and-white images, Jordan is clearly fascinated by the realism of textures and surfaces. Other work shows an interest in the circle invoked in fish eyes, which meet our gaze as orbs of corral in “Multiple Feed.” Such fragments of interesting forms and ideas, however, tend to be swamped in a muddled project. The artist clearly has a knack for seducing the viewer’s eye with her punchy, maxed-out color scheme and whimsical faux-creatures. But any effort to look for conceptual or narrative ideas tends to go unrewarded. Submerged takes stabs at some environmental or spiritual message but is more engaging as a formal study in color and texture.

There are moments of something more meaningful and laden with possibility in Submerged, when Jordan is able to convey an element of mystery and sensuality in her ocean creatures not unlike Georgia O’Keeffe’s or Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic portraiture of flowers. A seashell captured in “Single Feed,” for instance, has a delicate conical ivory surface that ends in a petal pink tip that immediately suggests a woman’s breast. And there is something equally mesmerizing in the grainy black-and-white image “Sigmund” of a seahorse’s tail dangling against an infinite plain background. There is a sense of the familiar and the confoundingly strange that makes such images remarkably odd and compelling and offers a possibility of yet-to-be-explored depth in Jordan’s deep sea project.

Submerged runs through Feb. 1 at Momus Gallery, Tula Art Center, 75 Bennett St., Suite D-2. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment. 404-355-4180.