Catalog Essay by Caitlin W. Haskell:
Unlike writing about Mike Osborne's photographs of nighttime highway construction sites, writing about his newest work feels a little like show and tell. In each of the three photographs included in Shade, Osborne shows us a single subject isolated on a black ground -- a specimen for our scrutiny. We know quite clearly what Osborne is showing us, but what he's telling us becomes more difficult to decipher.
Though Osborne's works are untitled, one feels that names could come quite naturally to the images: motorcyclist, mummy bag, galaxy shirt (or man with plastic bag, depending on your interest). These are the objects shown. But such names are inexact shorthand for what we see. There is more than just an object. At times, we see the motorcycle whole, as a pigmented, positive silhouette against the black ground. At other times we see interior pieces whose sum equals a motorcycle. More than just an object, we can observe the reciprocal relationship between blackness and color, absolute absence and irrefutable presence.
In the show portion of "show and tell" the person leading the exposé would typically familiarize his or her audience with a sampling of nouns: leather jacket, helmet, sleeping bag, motorcycle, tee-shirt. As I list these, I note that they are all objects that have a dependence on an activating body. They are worn, or driven. But the objects Osborne has selected also have properties that contain or enclose. They overcome the bodies that operate them. Wrapping around human figures, these goods become costumes that envelope their inhabitants. A motorcycle not driven becomes an elaborate chrome chair. A sleeping bag used upright by a waking woman becomes a human cocoon. No longer a substitute for a bed, the bag has become a buffer between the photograph's exterior blackness and the single eye, tuft of hair, and round nose sheltered within its interior.
Though the objects Osborne depicts are easily recognizable, we recognize with equal ease that they are being used in gratuitous and unexpected ways. As such, the objects provoke aesthetic fascination. An enumeration of the contents in Osborne's show and tell starts to shift from nouns to adjectives. Rather than a motorcycle and rider, which could be known merely through their outline, I am shown thick folds of worn leather and see its ability to reflect light. I am shown the shadows that appear in wrinkles of blue synthetic fabric and observe the fabric's ability to puff out and pull taut. I am shown the way that water vapor condenses on the interior of a plastic bag and witness how the same plastic bag can turn from a two-dimensional suffocation device to a three- dimensional hollow form when gripped into a bundle. Qualities (adjectives) are displayed with equal prominence to the objects they describe. Ancillary attributes become materialized. As such the question of composition, "What composes this image?" becomes one part vehicle and one part descriptor. The motorcycle becomes a necessary prop to carry blue crystalline paint. The rider is needed to carry the leather jacket, and the tee-shirted man is compositionally necessary for his ability to port a galaxy of fiery orange and icy blue.
Despite their disparate subject matter, color unites Osborne's
three photographs. More specifically, color restrictions
substitute strict limitations for the abandon with which film
typically records color. A simple governing notion - black and
white plus two colors - bridges the photographs' thematic
divide. These are color photographs, yet their limited palette
permits only two contrasting color values, cobalt blue and
variations of tangerine. Acting within strict tolerances,
granting license only where essential, Osborne creates
images that a reckless practice might never detect, and a
camera's unbridled whimsy could well destroy.