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Rebersburg artist transforms ordinary objects into photographic art

“Transfigurations: Large-Scale Photographic Works” features eight large-scale photographs by Rebersburg artist Stephen Althouse.
“Transfigurations: Large-Scale Photographic Works” features eight large-scale photographs by Rebersburg artist Stephen Althouse. Photo provided

The Juniata College Museum of Art in Huntingdon will exhibit the work of Rebersburg artist Stephen Althouse in “Transfigurations: Large-Scale Photographic Works,” through April 7.

The new exhibit features eight large-scale photographs by Althouse. The photos are black and white, and present individual objects, some draped with white fabric, in high resolution against a black background. Althouse’s photography takes ordinary objects such as shovels, tools and wheels out of their context and transforms them into images that invite contemplation.

According to Kathryn Blake, director of the JCMA, the pieces “allow us to focus on the details of very simple and humble objects and give them a metaphorical quality by presenting them as art instead of everyday objects.”

Born in 1948 in Washington, D.C., Althouse was raised on a farm in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a child, his family had residency in Mexico, where Althouse worked on a horse ranch. In high school, he was an exchange student living in Argentina. These experiences were highly influential in developing the artist’s appreciation of diverse cultures and interest in foreign travel.

During his childhood, Althouse’s parents periodically took him to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he especially enjoyed medieval and northern renaissance paintings, influences which may be subtly perceived in his work. However, as is evident in his unique art, Althouse has been less influenced by other individual artists than by his own experiences and interactions with people of different cultures, along with his need to express his lifelong questions about humanity. He now lives in Rebersburg, where he develops ideas for his artwork stimulated by close interaction with the Amish community.

As a sculptor, Althouse created 3-D work of wood and forged metal that had a resemblance to farming implements. Gradually he became more interested in ready-made/found objects that had the same mystery and power that he was trying to create in his sculptures.

“I document my found objects with photography and intensify aspects of the objects through camera angle, lighting and absence of color,” he said. “Although I utilize photography, my thinking, traditions and aesthetics are not as photographic as they are sculptural.”

Rather than carrying his camera looking for subjects, Althouse works similarly as a sculptor, formulating his ideas and imagery first in in his mind. From his ideas he creates simple still-life assemblages of objects that relate to timeless human activity and his personal life experiences. Althouse often superimposes languages unfamiliar to many in the U.S. on to the objects, including Braille, German and Pennsylvania Dutch.

“Utilizing large-format film photography combined with digital manipulation and printing, I transmute and formalize my subjects into metaphor-laden visual expressions,” he said. “I often reinforce the conceptual nature of my work by adding written phrases in obscure dialects and in Braille, which may heighten the mystery of my art.”

All of Althouse’s pieces are large-scale archival pigment prints — inkjet prints using highly stable pigmented inks on heavy weight cotton rag paper. Because the consideration of scale is so important to his work, he uses black and white sheet film in view cameras. When magnified to the scale of Althouse’s prints, the sheet film provides more visual information and detail than is possible by digital cameras.

“Using primarily available light for illumination, I shoot long exposures between 4 to 8 minutes and develop the film by hand,” he said. “After processing the film, I scan the sheet film negatives to digitize them, so I can enhance and manipulate the image on the computer, which can take several weeks or months to prepare the image for printing. I then print my work up to nine feet in length in my studio.”

Among Althouse’s works in the exhibition is “Wheel I,” which is a life-sized depiction of an old wooden wheel against a large piece of white cloth floating in a black void.

Another print is “Broken Wagon,” a 5-by-8 foot depiction of a broken Amish spring wagon, with a Pennsylvania Dutch phrase carved into the back, floating in a black void.

“Axe with Braille” is a larger-than-life depiction of an old rusted ax head bound with strips of white cloth and floating in a black void. A Braille inscription was placed by the artist across the ax head.

A sculptor and photographer, Althouse has also worked as a professor, traveling extensively and residing, lecturing and creating art in places such as France, England, Spain, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. He was also an artist-in-residence in Belgium for a year. His work has appeared in museums across the United States as well as abroad.

Althouse’s primary goal as a contemporary visual artist is to introduce new ideas and imagery to the ongoing evolution of contemporary art.

“It is an exciting challenge inventing never before seen imagery, and at the same time satisfying my need for personal expression,” he said.

Because Althouse’s artwork has much more personal meaning for him than merely being visual depictions of objects, he hopes that people ponder, interpret and react in a personal way what they see and feel when viewing his artwork.

“The work is intended to be more metaphoric than literal, so each person may react differently and is entitled to appreciate the work, or not, in his or her own way,” he said. “At the very least I’m hoping that viewers will be introduced to visual ideas that they’ve never before experienced.”

IF YOU GO

  • What: “Transfigurations: Large-Scale Photographic Works”
  • When: through April 7
  • Where: Juniata College Museum of Art, corner of 17th and Moore streets, Huntingdon
  • Info: www.juniata.edu/academics/museum
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