After a back injury in the late 1980s ended Robert Stivers' first career in dancing, he took up photography. The New Mexico artist taught himself to shoot as he pleased and develop the effects he desired in the darkroom. His use of soft focus, tones of black, white, or sepia, and various technical tricks create deliberately blurred imagery. His work suggests not images of solid objects, but forms glimpsed in smoke or mirages at once vague but vivid.
In 2006, portions of Stivers' dreamy corpus were donated to the Akron Art Museum. Now for the first time, 40 examples Stivers' work — drawn from the past 12 years or what Akron Art Museum's collections manager Arnold Tunstall calls his "mature" period — are on display in their new home.
The exhibition, Veiled Image, earns its name honestly.
"When Stivers shows you things you've seen before — taking away some of the information, taking away the background and foreground — viewers bring a lot of themselves to the work," says Tunstall. "We've been surprised by the variety of responses. Some people find it scary. Some find it beautiful."
Any discussion of the exhibition that focuses on just a few pieces cannot help but misrepresent the overall show. Stivers shoots sea shells, animals, houses, cityscapes, images from art history, and — perhaps inspired by his dance background — himself and his friends in various states of undress. At first glance, many pieces suggest they could have been shot anytime in the past century. Closer attention reveals a contemporary preoccupation with ambiguity and fracturedness.
"Self Portrait Wrapped," from Series 5, depicts the artist tightly bound within a sheet, which he holds close to his own arms. It is a self portrait that reveals only the most general contour of Stivers' body, with only a slit with one dark spot (an eye) exposing the face. The viewer must work as hard to discern the artist's body as his intentions, while the tight wrapping suggests a sense of personal entrapment.
"FIC-Baby" (above) fills the frame with a stark white image of a putto with a lush head of hair and a downcast face. Whatever the original figure was meant to convey, the heavy lids and blank expression Strivers discovers in his lens conveys sternness beyond the infant's years. It looks as if he mourns a loss or perhaps pities the viewer knowingly.
While maintaining tight control of technique and imagery, Strivers humbly mutes his intent, crafting images that are open questions — but ones that seem urgent.
The exhibition remains on view through January 20, 2013, at One South High St. in Akron. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or go to akronartmuseum.org.