Christian Houge: Shadow Within

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Christian Houge, from Shadow Within. Courtesy Hosfelt GalleryChristian Houge, from Shadow Within. Courtesy Hosfelt Gallery

With wilderness becoming an increasingly finite entity, our interactions with non-domesticated animals grow more frequent, intimate, and often tragic: Pets deemed lost to coyotes or mountain lions lead to a war between species. Christian Houge's vividly rendered photographs of a pack of wolves — on view at Hosfelt Gallery through August 17 — wade into this rough ecological territory while addressing aesthetic concerns—elegantly composed, they also involve an almost performative process. The Norwegian artist has engaged sustained interactions with the animals in order to garner their trust and move closer in to their lair for more intimate pictures. While the project has its metaphorical and narrative components—the wolf is nothing if not symbolic of the big bad predator—there is also a strong performance art affinity with Joseph Beuys’s cohabitation with a coyote in his 1974 I Like America and America Likes Me, which is documented in a concurrent group show at the gallery. 

Most of the works are chilly black and whites, the silver tones directly capturing a wintery atmosphere as well as the pointed teeth visible in snarling mouths. The commanding Untitled 1, Norway, 2010, depicts two wolves, mouths ferociously open, their heads abutted in a manner making them resemble Siamese twins. While the pose is expressive, the image has an uncanny stillness that brings to mind Hiroshi Sugimoto’s diorama series. When Houge moves in closer, as in Untitled 15, Norway, 2011, the project grows more complex. He captures the palpable softness of the fur, a tactile aspect that undercuts the ferocity of steely eyes and bared teeth. In another work, a lone wolf is seen close up, entering a cave-like burrow. Its face is entirely obscured in shadow, its paws more visible in the foreground, appearing to timidly enter into some kind of unknown territory. Here Houge communicates a vulnerability that is a counterpoint to the predatory vibe. You can’t help but imagine the photographer’s even more vulnerable position within this setting. 

The handful of color photographs on view enrich the sense of atmosphere, though they lose some bite. Untitled 6, Norway, 2010, depicts canines crossing a stream, their reflections visible in the glassy dark blue surface of the water. The color scheme veers dangerously close to Sierra Club nature photography. Nevertheless, such pictures suggest that Houge has plenty of material to mine in this ongoing project.