Review of Ben Montague’s “Fingerprints”

From the Santa Fe New Mexican


Published: July 24, 2009

Benjamin Montague‘s new show at Chiaroscuro called Fingerprints contains images that read like crime scenes. Fragmented and enlarged, his photo-based pictures could conceivably be used as reference material — exhibits A through H — to discover who did what to whom in what room and by what means on the night of, well, whenever. In a series of eight inkjet prints, the viewer is confronted with telltale condensation rings, smudges, stains, and other residual traces of once-placed objects, all laced with fingerprints (thus, the title). But Col. Mustard, Prof. Plum, and Mrs. Peacock need not worry. By simple elimination, one deduces that this is an art show. Essentially nonobjective, Montague‘s grainy, black-and-white photos look as if they’ve been through the ringer but not the final rinse cycle. Surfaces appear to be soiled, yet their deliberate textural quality comes by way of rice paper and beeng each print a milky translucency. Because of that element, these abstracted images also reminded me of microradiographs — X-ray film used to display minute detail. In short, Montague‘s work takes you to a variety of places. But for the more literally minded, titles clue you in as to what Montague was documenting, such as Restroom Sink (2008); Beer Bottle, Greek Week (2008); Trader Joe’s Spanish Quiche (2008); and Wine Cup, Gallery Opening (2009). Consequently, I started to get a sense of the photographer’s lifestyle, but that’s neither here nor there. What bothered me about the titles were, indeed, the titles. It’s not that I wanted everything to be untitled, but gallery-goers tend to put a lot of store into titles and, in fact, some folks gravitate to wall labels even before looking at the artwork. And once a descriptive title is implanted in your head, it’s often difficult to see a work in other ways — when someone points out that image of Jesus in a tortilla, it’s hard not to see it. If Montague‘s titles had been listed in a separate exhibition checklist, rather than paired to the images on the walls, it might allow for more speculative viewing. Despite its mundane title, the most dynamic piece in the show is Paper Towel Dispenser (2008). Seen as an abstracted, otherworldly outcropping of rock or some other substance, the formal elements of shape and form, as well as positive and negative space, are powerful. Additionally, Montague‘s oblique composition reveals his critical eye for unusual placement within a framework of related, yet disengaged geometrics. The concentric arcs of the subtle fingerprint play well to the verticality of the split, rectangular form that serves as a strong focal point — sort of a circle within a square. Looking like a disembodied head with hair combed completely over the face, Stall Door (2008) kept me wanting to see facial features of some sort. But ultimately, the image defeated me and remained nonrepresentational. That’s what I enjoy about such stuff — artwork that makes you work a little bit to consider the artist’s mind-set or, at the very least, gets you deeper into your own thought process. And Montague‘s Fingerprints does just that. — Douglas Fairfield Copyright (c) 2009 The Santa Fe New Mexican