Hidden figures: The mysterious work of WAXenVINE at Second Street Gallery

“TORN” at Second Street Gallery will be shown through January 18. Courtesy of the artist. “TORN” at Second Street Gallery will be shown through January 18. Courtesy of the artist.

By CM Gorey

Photography rules our lives now. And unless you’re a staunch Luddite with something to prove, you’re a contributor and a consumer from first coffee cup through alarm-setting before bed. We have transitioned from the point-and-shoot, badly lit grease fests of 1980s homespun glossies to teeming libraries of filters swizzling images into preposterous concoctions: At essentially zero cost, we make ourselves years younger, abnormally wide-eyed and emitting suspect amounts of sparkles. Undermining the camera’s basic function of mirroring reality, we yield ever further to absorbing and reflecting more fantasy.

Yet given the unlimited potential for new visions, there’s a sameness to most of the imagery we swipe past. A cheap currency of storytelling dominates the images we see; it’s a totalitarian vogue insinuated by so-called influencers and perfect people we’ve never met.

In a world inundated with visuals, it’s an incredible feat that the fine art of photography persists. More implausible still, the work of Brooklyn-based husband-and-wife team WAXenVINE requires an in-person (yeah, real life) visit to appreciate it properly. Their show “TORN” at Second Street Gallery recasts the medium in a manner that shows a depth muted by the very best phone displays; its quality invites in-the-flesh meditation that is otherwise disguised to an unfair flatness when replicated by even good old print.

Photographer Scott Irvine and interdisciplinary artist Kim Meinelt share a singular artistic vision. Their multifaceted images recall early vintage photo portraiture, but the subjects commingle with skyward or taxonomic shots of fauna and flora in upended perspectives; the guts of simple machines recast them in daunting tangles; and inverted negatives find them under obscured, scratched treatments.

“TORN” deals primarily with the female figure and alternative views of beauty, which, according to the artists, aim to conjure an uneasy yet ethereal narrative. If the stratification of the pieces is successful, it’s because when we drill down beneath the gloss of the topmost layer, peer into the blur of intentional overexposure and wounded focus, we’re still met with mystery. Look and look some more. These people refuse to be seen.

It’s easy to assume a commentary on the objectification of femininity, given the women fogged out by bird feathers and muddied up by chandeliers. But like the physical composition of the works themselves, it goes deeper.

WAXenVINE’s photographs defy the expected benefits of sight by squelching the clarity associated with proximity. We’re so close but still can’t be completely sure what it is we’re looking at: Is that woman upset or in total bliss? In pain or ecstasy? And where is she?

The abstractions are ripe for interpretation: Generated in spontaneous reaction to calibrate the experience, our projected narratives serve to pound a stake in the rare islands of surety the artists have allotted for us. We know that’s a woman and that’s a tree, but that knowledge doesn’t reveal ambition and it never exposes unguarded emotion.

Looking over these pieces together in Second Street’s Dové Gallery, it’s apparent that many of the captured figures are complicit in the viewer’s ignorance. They are unable or unwilling to look back at us from their umbral warrens, and their lack of eyes —or in some instances, featureless faces—make the problem all the more convoluted for the viewer.

The titles of three-foot square works dominating two of the gallery walls acknowledge the female subjects beyond scrutiny. Landscapes meld with bodies, flesh becomes dust, which becomes flesh. In “Milka Torn,” the subject’s arms in a defensive self-hug hold back a forest of stars erupting from her chest, as a windswept wasteland tumultuously rolls in the distance. “Caitin Torn” catches either a woman’s final moments before dissolving into the earth, or the beginning of her revival in the desiccating greenery. New life or old death? This could be the underlying question that drives WAXenVINE.

One section containing 23 smaller pieces transforms into smaller square windows peering into a monochrome freakshow or an advent calendar from an asylum. “Pins + Needles” gives an unlucky lady the voodoo doll treatment, while “Blythe” loses the majority of her orifices to an implosion of botany; same goes for the pivot-face locked in the floral wheel of “Dandelion,” and for “Elizabeth,” whose profile has birthed bulbs, her graceful throat repurposed as a field from which the long stems grow. In the ruff of blooms of the darkened “Tara + Flower,” the motif is repeated in the cycle of life and the irrepressible profusion of beauty.

No less effective, other works such as “Tara Beads,” “Sylvie,” and “Markert Gold” ignite their black-and-white expanses with golden hues. By creating a richness of contour and replicating the trope of interconnectedness—woman as tree, branches as a gilded x-ray of veins and capillaries—the portraits carry the faintest traces of Klimt-style woman worship. The layers of each, in concert, bridge the scientific and the religious. We may not understand everything, but perhaps we know enough to believe what we see.