Christopher Russell scratches into the surface of a photograph like a small animal burrowing into the earth. Partly, he seems to want to get inside the image-medium that has become the enveloping environment of contemporary life.
And partly, he seems to want to cut it to ribbons, refusing the illusions that photographs so effortlessly create. At Von Lintel Gallery, Russell shows 12 luminous recent works from “The Explorers” series and three “Mountain” images, their titles alone gesturing toward his probing eagerness and the height of his hurdle.
Each work begins with a photograph of a vague landscape fragment — the surface of water, open sky, a canopy of tree branches overhead. Often the landscape details are obscured by blazing sunlight — no sun, no landscape; no light, no photograph — and are initially difficult to see. Color ranges from pastel to jewel-toned.
Using sharp blades, Russell draws in short, sharp lines that expose the white photographic paper beneath all that colorfully seductive emulsion. The physical result is a drawing created less through the addition of lines on a sheet of paper as much as through the removal of photographic surface. The work occupies a hybrid place, neither photograph nor drawing but something in between.
The imagery includes trees, cliffs, hilly horizons and more abstract forms, such as half-tone dots and swirls that may signify water (they’re like the linear agitations in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester). Patterns are reminiscent of antique floral wallpaper and textiles.
In one, a windjammer’s mast is repeated at topsy-turvy angles. It’s as if an exploratory journey is getting tangled up in its own rigging, sinking beneath the limpid blue paint sprayed on the photograph’s bottom half.
The most impressive work, more than 4 feet high and 6 feet wide, is “The Explorers #1,” a pair of sheets that have been folded, spindled and mutilated, as if ignoring the standard warning on an old computer punch-card. Turquoise at the top slides through pale pink at the center to mint green along the bottom, while the cut and scored lines radiate outward from the center.
The effect is like an aurora borealis — or like the photographic “error” of starlike “diffraction spikes” caused by light traveling off-axis through a camera lens. Photographs are not transparent recordings of the world but projections of fictions, insightful or unperceptive, onto it. Russell’s photographs, also on view in the group exhibition “Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography” at the Getty Museum, marvelously picture the mysterious process.
Von Lintel Gallery, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City. Through April 21; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 559-5700, www.vonlintel.com