Art association

Tangled in Blue at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

Cyanotypes are made by painting an iron compound emulsion onto a substrate, usually paper. The emulsion dries, then a negative or positive (plants used by Atkins) is placed on top and exposed to ultraviolet light – the sun or a sunlamp. Rinsing with water fixes the image. Iron produces this sumptuous Prussian blue. The process is convenient and potentially toxic, a far cry from the virtual manipulations of digital photography.

Midge Battelle, “Low Tide”, cyanotype on paper.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

But this is the 21st century. In “Out of the Blue”, Rebecca Bruyn marries analog and digital methods, taking images with her iPhone to create large 16 x 16 inch negatives. She transports those from outside to make cyanotypes. His photographs of old Provincetown homes reflect the vernacular architecture of this small town.

Because they are cyanotypes, they already read like relics. Digital images are sharp, but their edges sometimes swim. In “160 Commercial St., c. 1820”, a cupola and two chimneys appear on the point of dissolving, as if the blue were the mists of time which settle and erode the house.

Bruyn has a keen eye for the compositions found in the corners and plans of the clustered clapboard houses of Provincetown. She amplifies the effect in a group of three photographic collages: ‘Above the Rooftops’, ‘Looking Out, Looking In’ and ‘Front Porch’. The collages, mounted on boxes that protrude from the wall, lead the gaze through, in, up and above in a way that evokes the structures and spaces cheek by jowl, nooks and crannies of this town.

“Rebecca Bruyn, “Above the Rooftops”, “Looking Out, Looking In” and “Front Porch”, cyanotype photographic collage box.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

Amy Heller’s earliest pieces, dating as far back as 2006, are spooky and typological. “Doll Triplets” depicts three limbless, numb-faced antique dolls floating unexpectedly as if buried in a shipwreck. Heller’s cyan backdrop seems almost generative – the stuff of mystery, a depth from which the images arise.

Amy Heller, “Doll Triplets”, cyanotype on fabric.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

His more recent and increasingly nuanced works deviate from traditional cyanotype printmaking in new ways and illuminate this mystery. In a series of stunning silk prints mounted on light boxes, she layers negatives, positives (like a trailing wisp of seaweed, a nod to Atkins), and more to create delightfully watery fields.

“Liminal Jellyfish” is as vividly vertical as a classic Chinese landscape painting — a force in Chinese art through several dynasties. It’s easy to see a craggy mountain and storm-tossed sky here, but Heller’s rippling, sun-bleached emulsion and moiré effect of layered silk make this pairing an intimate underwater experience, with jellyfish passing ominously near the surface.

Amy Heller, “Liminal Jellyfish”, mixed LED cyanotype on silk.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

A photographer’s emulsion is like a potter’s glaze; mix the chemistry and it changes the effect. Midge Battelle experiments, throwing spices, salts, vinegar and soap suds into what she paints on the page. For “Pilgrim,” she exposed such a brew to UV light in a Provincetown-shaped form. Monument to the pilgrims landmark, transforming this granite tower into luminous sea green dotted with blue – or from a phallic statement commemorating the arrival of the Pilgrims and subsequent takeover of native lands into a devious mystical investigation.

Midge Battelle, “Pilgrim”, cyanotype on paper.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

Batelle’s “Sainte Jeanne” recalls the coat of arms granted to Jeanne D’Arcof the family by King Charles VII around 1429. The heraldry features a sword in the center of an azure shield with gold fleurs-de-lis on either side. Battelle’s dazzling version looks directly at the center of a dark blue flower, the petals languidly flared and bisected in the middle by a slash of pale blue light. The fleur-de-lis echo several delicate volutes like baby’s breath that swirl over the central flower and its surroundings.

Midge Battelle, “Sainte Jeanne”, cyanotype on paper.James Zimmerman / Staff Photographer at Provincetown Art Association and Museum

As in “Pilgrim”, in “Saint Joan”, Battelle transforms a harsh symbol into something more elusive – a passion, the blossoming of an inner truth. Blue is an appropriate color for such things: it’s easy to get lost in it. Add to that the touch of hand-painted emulsion, the kiss of the sun, the patience and uncertainty of the process, and you’ll understand why cyanotypes have never lost their magic.

OUT OF THE BLUE: Cyanotypes by Midge Battelle, Rebecca Bruyn and Amy Heller

At the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, until November 13. 508-487-1750, www.paam.org


Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.