Mary Abbe

Star Tribune Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 1998

Describing the 29 photos in his current “Water Bowl” series, Jim Henkel wrote simply, “I fill up a bowl with water and I watch it. It’s like a daily devotional.”

That modest remark doesn’t even hint at the Zen magic of Henkel’s exquisite images, the best of three fine photography shows at Minneapolis galleries. On view through March 22 at pARTSs Gallery (711 W Lake St), Henkel’s images share space with scenic still-lifes by Jila Nikpay and John Johnston.

More than a century ago, the American writer Henry David Thoreau was inspired to transcendental meditation by a year observing Walden Pond, a small lake not far from his home near Lexington, Mass. Seeing a microcosm of the universe in its ever-changing water and woodland, Thoreau used nature to open a window onto the human soul, deriving moral and spiritual insight from incidents as small as the dance of light on water or a footprint in snow.

Henkel’s photos—each of which metaphorically depicts a bowl filled with natural images—invite viewers on a similar journey. The series would make a splendid book and ideally should be read like a text, from left to right, starting with photo No. 1, which introduces the theme. A simple image, it shows a curved twig on a table, its buds twisted into a bowl-like shape. Next come a half-dozen photos of “bowl” images formed by drawing with light on pebbles, with string on cement, with charcoal or metal or chalk on various surfaces.

Then Henkel pulls the outside world into his studio landscapes by filling real bowls brim-full of water and photographing reflections of passing clouds, knots of twigs, branches, leaves, light. Later in the series, he spills water around the bowls, turning them into tiny islands that drift into and out of focus.

Shimmering and luminous, Henkel’s images are both straightforward and conceptually topsy-turvy. Using no computer or darkroom tricks, he focuses on different parts of his reflected landscapes, making bowls disappear so patches of sky float on tables, rims of water encircle leaves, and the outdoors magically penetrates the interior.

Like Oriental gardens, which symbolically compress the universe into an artful arrangement of raked gravel and rocks, Henkel’s black-and-white images evoke meditational poetry from elemental materials. There’s a world of ideas here—about nature and art, inner reflections and exterior stimulus, containment and freedom, form and void, shadow and light. The wonder is that he could weave so fine and beautiful a fabric from such modest stuff.

James Henkel