Blow-Up at Poem 88 revels in film themes

Five artists tackle the unstable nature of Michelangelo Antonioni’s filmic reality

The scene is ’60s London; the star, a wildly successful photographer engaged in dubious sexual relationships with models — both super and aspiring — who literally throw themselves at his feet. The conflict: He’s witnessed a murder through his camera lens and only realized it after the fact. What follows is his obsessive desire to find the truth, the story behind his snapshots. All the while reality becomes less and less certain as the pot-filled haze that is Swinging London distracts our hero from his search and undermines the established facts. We are left to wonder: Was a murder committed? And if so, does it matter?

The issues that set the stage of Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s iconic 1966 film, have been adapted to serve as inspiration for a group exhibition of the same name at Poem 88. The film overflows with weighty themes like the tenuous nature of truth, artistic aspirations for clarity and beauty, and the problematic nature of the image, which serve as the starting points for the works in this exhibition. The resulting paintings, photographs, and mixed-media artworks present analyses of Blow-Up’s themes and scenes while remaining firmly rooted in the styles of the individual artists.

Sharon Shapiro and InKyoung Chun’s paintings are the most explicitly related to the film and as such provide an excellent introduction to this referential exhibition. Shapiro’s easily recognizable portraits of the female characters in the film not only showcase their beauty, but also their fraught status. We see the scheming nature of Vanessa Redgrave’s mysterious character, and her uncertainty, as well as the starstruck confusion of two teenage aspiring models, including an unrecognizably blond Jane Birkin. InKyoung Chun’s contribution, “Catch It If You Can,” depicts one of the most memorable scenes in the film, when the lead character becomes a participant in a mimed tennis match, but includes Chun’s trademark ki bubbles to symbolize both the invisible tennis ball as well as the spirit and energy of the moment.

Nancy VanDevender and Nikita Gale’s installations emphasize the narrative confusion caused from trying to construe a murder scene through still images. VanDevender combines images from Blow-Up with other films that similarly investigate truth and fiction, like Last Year at Marienbad, to create multilayered scenes that are almost impossible to identify. These works tend toward the dense and confusing, but the long wallpaper-like panels VanDevender created for the exhibition are truly stunning. Parisian avenues mix with a multitude of figures, including Poem 88 gallerist Robin Bernat and artist Gale, creating a vibrant pattern with surprising hidden elements. Gale’s installation features mixed-up Polaroids that depict and confuse the sequence of events leading up to a broken mirror — not the most exciting work in this show, but certainly in the spirit of the film — and, more intriguingly, silver gelatin prints of letters composing declarative sentences. As per the opening credits of the film, scenes and faces can be seen within the letters, construing an obscured glimpse into another world.

Ben Steele’s dazzling paintings — the only works not created specifically for Blow-Up — are the keystone of this intriguing exhibition. Steele’s work primarily deals with disconnects between actual spaces and construed reality, thereby fitting a major theme of the film without being derivative. Steele’s large canvases depict blue-hued scenes with prismatic splashes of light and obfuscated subject matter in which you’re never entirely sure what you’re looking at, though there are clues. Steele’s paintings are mesmerizing puzzles of fractured forms and divergent light sources in which reality is elusive but beauty is front and center, which, per the exultant though bewildering final scene of Antonioni’s film, is all we can hope for in the end.