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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Greg Conniff's - 30 - examines branches, brambles and borders through a photographic lens
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The garden in Oneonta, New York, 1986 is anarchy incarnate.
Credit:Greg Conniff

On display through Dec. 23, the new exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery has a curious title: - 30 -. A relic of the telegraph age, this symbol signifies the end of a document, typically a press release. But what might it mean for a collection of black-and-white photos, especially photos of weeds?

Greg Conniff, the taker of these photos, provides some insight in a statement near the entrance: "[Weeds] flourish on the edges of what we've built -- exploding alongside roads and railroad tracks, climbing over what we've abandoned, and pushing up through what we're trying to maintain."

They're wild and disorderly, refusing to respect borders. They take over without so much as a conversation.

This may sound scary, but it's a natural state of being. It's also a thing of beauty, according to Conniff's camera, which documents the chaos weeds bring and the eerie peace that follows. The garden in Oneonta, New York, 1986 is anarchy incarnate. An arch made of branches frames the scene as a white haze gathers in the distance. Unkempt grasses close in on a plot of sunflowers. One blossom has fallen to the ground, and the others point in various directions, as if looking for help. As one era ends, another begins.

Brier Hill Mill, Youngstown, OH, 1979-89 suggests that man-made structures are the weeds, if by "weed' you mean "unnatural growth" or "noxious nuisance." This work contains two photos. The bottom one is a close-up of decaying pipes and wheels. In the top one, shallow puddles lead to a construction site where trestles, machines and boarded-up buildings cluster amid crumbling brick walls and piles of dirt. A gravel-like path cuts through the middle of the scene. Instead of providing an escape, it leads to more industrial ugliness.

Though Brier Hill's structures aren't stunning to look at, the photo is arresting when viewed as a whole. Conniff, a Madison resident, is a master of composition. A rectangular trestle encroaches from the right, intersecting with an inverted triangle of beams and braces. On the left, a trestle approaches you diagonally, subverting the straight lines and right angles of the other structures. Like the arch in Oneonta, it forms a frame for something in the distance: wild, spindly plants, which seem like strangers from another planet.

Some of Conniff's photos explore the serenity of endings. Night has fallen in Badlands, ND, 1989. The image is so dark that you must look closely to find its subject: striated rock formations, rendered in sooty grays and the blackest of blacks. A few tiny lights appear on the horizon, a sign that this, too, shall pass.

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