In photography, the abstract image is its own animal.
Other mediums might draw little to no connection between the work on the gallery wall and the places or items (or emotional states) that inspired them. A photo is something that ultimately can be traced back to the real world, a tangible object framed by the artist's lens. Something you can touch and feel. Perhaps something you can eat.
Stepping off the elevator on the 14th floor of University of the Arts' Terra Hall, we're greeted by a large square print of a rugged mound of ... something. It's rough like granite, rising into a dark background; it's like we're looking at a haunted underground landscape. Upon closer inspection, it's more clearly an object wrapped tightly in crinkly cellophane, the dark reds and browns underneath suggesting violence of some sort. Closer still, and our questions are answered in the title of the work: This is Mary Parisi's Ham Mountain (pictured), the lead image in her "Food" exhibit.
If abstract art is intended to present viewers with puzzles, Parisi does this with a taste of subversion. She turns our kitchens into alien landscapes, definitely not places you'd care to eat or prepare food. Tomato Splatter looks like distant stars, a lonely red object afloat in a sea of grayish black nothingness. As with the ham we saw on the way in, realization comes in stages. That item at the center is a piece of tomato, but where is it? The crosshatching in the lower right might be ... grass? Nope. As we eventually see, it's a scratched-up iron saucepan, with a residual piece of diced tomato at its center.
Flash in the Pan is even more mystical and abstruse, an amber flame-like shape licking up from a black field. This meditative scene is actually little more than breakfast leftovers — those flecks of egg stuck to the rim of the frying pan after you've removed your omelette. It dried and crusted around its edges as it dripped downward, but it's photographed so it reaches upward.
Parisi takes the aftermaths of our meal preparation and transforms them into worlds all their own. She also transforms food itself from something tantalizing (or, at the very least, edible) to something unappetizing and perhaps unsettling. The poultry in Boiled Chicken is obscured until you look at its title — the frame is dotted with circles of various sizes and orange-brown-white hues. Groups of tiny beads cluster in the center, corners are occupied by larger beads. In the lower right, dots of brown make pupils at the center, a score of reptilian eyes watching you watch it. With this image, realization comes as you get further away and see the outline of the meaty bird beneath a surface of an oily broth. The curve of the pot in the lower left corner tips you off, but after being under the gaze of all those eyeballs, you don't much feel like eating.
Parisi has shot this scene several times, each arousing a different response. Though not included in the exhibit, her image Young Chicken with Pearls looks oddly placental, while Unnamed Chicken (a shadowy focus on the gaping decapitated neck with the legs raised in alarm) is horrific. Likewise, her tight crops of shrink-wrapped meatloaf, spare ribs and fish heads evoke the same cadaverous violence of Ham Mountain.
Most perplexing is the scene we see upon exiting. The subject in Nesting Pigeon sits behind a distressed pane of ... we're not quite sure what (a window?) while silhouetted spokes (a wheel?) sit in the background. Tail feathers jut upward as though the bird outside has just taken an unfortunate faceplant, but it's otherwise unclear how this fits in the culinary motif. Is the bird our meal? Is the bird eating? Are we planning to eat its eggs? Parisi's photos are full of mystery, and guessing is the fun in visiting her exhibit. Just not around mealtime.
"Food," through March 2, free, Gallery 1401, Terra Hall, University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad St., 14th floor, 215-717-6030, uarts.edu.