The photographs included in Dean M. Beattie's Elemental Persona, at moxie DaDA gallery, explore not only the human, figural element traditionally associated with the portrait, but also the habitat that contains each. The individuals are enhanced by their surroundings but remain independent of them, the environs bolstering their tenants but not surrendering to their dominance. The artist's split attention demonstrates co-existence in its purest sense: Set and cast maintain an equal partnership, each revealing something about the other while still protecting its own secrets.
The ten images showcased -- curated by moxie's Grant Bobitski -- provide a stunning investigation into that easy balance. "My Sister On Her Wedding Day" homes in on a radiant young woman standing at the head of a flight of steps. The floor is covered in a richly patterned carpet, and disappears into darkness below. The steps lead down, but the woman atop them is ascending. Her face is lifted toward the sky and the light, and she is luminescent.
The bride-to-be might not be in her native habitat, but she fits comfortably into the world she's stepped into. "Joey -- Educator, Photographer," meanwhile, has been captured on film while in transition: The structure that surrounds him is one he's passing through. He, too, is shown on steps, in a stairwell that looks to be in a parking garage. But he's in motion, a glossy, polished figure amid chipped paint and worn plaster.
In these photos by Pittsburgh-based Beattie, the non-environmental focus is not always human. Witness "At The Bar": Although the eponymous tavern that provides the setting is populated by two figures within the frame that boundaries our field of vision, they are not what brings vibrancy to the smudgy bar top, the blurry, gaseous Budweiser sign, or the steins of lager either half full or half empty. What we connect with is not the barflies, stagnant behind their mugs of vital liquid, but rather the smoke that winds from cigarettes held aloft, sinewing and curling from between stony fingers. In this room, where the people seem as indelible a part of the terrain as the dartboard, this inanimate entity possesses all of the life.
"Jeff -- with his vices" is also shot from a bartender's point of view, and focuses on the latter term of its title more than the former. The bottle of Straub and pack of Basics are front and center, the face of Jeff himself fuzzy behind. But joining booze and smoke in place of prominence is Jeff's extended appendage, a proud middle finger saluting the lens.
Also featured in some of the images are the moxie DaDA family, including owner Christine Whispell and artists often exhibited in the space. Michael Koehler, whose work was seen in June's "Bogus Journey" exhibition, shows up superimposed upon the gallery's wall during "Journey," his work discernable through his own face.
In his artist statement, Beattie says: "In an environmental portrait, one may catch a glimpse of an individual's personality through his character and surroundings." Elemental Persona is enormously successful in expressing this idea. Each work beautifully secures its dual subjects with clarity and grace. As viewers, we instantly feel united with who and what we see, an appreciation that goes far beyond what's visible. The photographer and his subjects permit us an intimacy that exposes more than the physical; Beattie's love for them is palpable.
As viewers, we are often voyeurs, placed at a distance and peering in from outside. In the worlds displayed in Elemental Persona, we're participants eagerly welcomed.
Elemental Persona continues through Sept. 22. moxie DaDA Gallery, 1416 Arch St., North Side. 412-682-0348