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Looking Back, Looking Forward 

Art Review: Cynthia Beth Rubin, "Memories and Wanderings" and "Layered Histories"; Lia Rothstein, "Auschwitz-Birkenau 2009,"; both at Photostop, White River Junction. Through March 6.

click to enlarge “Auschwitz-Birkenau entrance, view from inside camp 2009” by Lia Rothstein
  • “Auschwitz-Birkenau entrance, view from inside camp 2009” by Lia Rothstein

In the hall of the Photostop gallery, a row of Lia Rothstein’s black-and-white photographs exudes a somber gravity. In one image, silvery grain swims over the surface in a watery blur before crystallizing at the intersection of gravel and train tracks. The nightmarish blurred shape of the Auschwitz-Birkenau “Gate of Death,” the entrance to one of the world’s darkest sites, looms in the distance.

Rothstein visited the concentration camp in April 2009 and took photographs with a lens that selectively blurs images. Captured over the course of a tour through the camp, the images seem simultaneously hurried and eternal; the anguish and eerie stasis that haunt the place fill each frame.

Rothstein, a photographer for 30 years and owner of Photostop, uses the selective blur of the lens with precision, tuning its focus to the aesthetic and emotional epicenter of each image. In “Ruins of Krematories II & III,” the focus rests in the center of the photograph, on a break in the concrete remnants of the crematoria and the spindly white birches beyond. The trees stand silent and thin, simultaneously witnesses to the dreadful past and symbols of life and regeneration.

Inside the gallery visitors can find Cynthia Beth Rubin’s two series, “Layered Histories” and “Memories & Wanderings.” While Rothstein’s photos appear worn smooth, Rubin’s are angular. Yet both are emotionally and visually intense.

Rubin’s “Memories & Wanderings” series conveys a conversation between the artist’s younger and current selves. During a 1968 course at Antioch College in Ohio, Rubin made drawings, then put them away; she rediscovered them in 2007. In the intervening years, she became a pioneering digital artist. Having worked at the technology’s cutting edge since it first sparked her interest in 1984, Rubin is now a recognized authority with an impressive list of book inclusions, teaching appointments and exhibitions to her credit. In “Memories & Wanderings,” she abstracted the 1968 drawings, creating layers of digital art and drawing that mingle in each work.

There is tenderness in this body of work, and a textural, painterly hand that’s often missing from the world of digital polish and perfection. Rubin overlaps her depictions of wandering through the woods as a college freshman and her carefully honed digital artistry, highlighting the particular freshness of each.

From a smaller alcove of the gallery, Rubin’s interactive audiovisual installation “Layered Histories: The Wandering Bible of Marseilles” spills its otherworldly music and saturated imagery into the room. The installation is a collaboration of Rubin and composer Bob Gluck that grew out of the story of the 13th-century Spanish illuminated Hebrew Bible, which went missing during the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain.

According to curator Rothstein, the Marseilles Bible is significant to the artist because it was created and used during a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peacefully. In Rubin’s installation, the viewer is invited to draw on the surface of a patterned tablet with a stylus, creating interactive collages of images and sounds. The pictures and music that accompany the movement of the pen create a kind of fictionalized slideshow version of the years between the bible’s disappearance in 1492 and its rediscovery in the 1880s, as if evoking them from the book’s “memory.”

The book becomes a first-person narrator weaving its way through those nearly 400 years with a mix of disorientation and wonder. The story’s complex overlapping of cultural history, particular circumstance and necessity are rich fodder for the media of video and sound art, and Rubin makes the work engrossing.

Aesthetically, her pieces and Rothstein’s are appropriately and tastefully separated, giving each series proper space for consideration. Still, gallery visitors will notice that both artists connect their works to Eastern European and Jewish history, whether in hidden or obvious ways, and each deals with loss and memory.

At times, Rubin’s fervor for the digital world seems out of step with the sorrowful factuality of Rothstein’s photographs. Yet the stylistic distance between those works reflects our historical sense of being divided. The past smolders in shades of gray, grounding the viewer with its weight, while the future yawns bold on the horizon, its shape shifting with each interaction.

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