Can a photograph be a poem? There are essential aspects of Paola Ferrario’s work that remind me very strongly of the poetry of William Carlos Williams. She shares with the author of “The Red Wheelbarrow” a knack for isolating details of the world to highlight both their shabbiness and their beauty. Also like WCW, Ferrario employs an economy of means and a refreshing unfussiness, evident in the snapshotlike informality of her images and their presentation as unframed, modestly sized inkjet prints pinned to the wall. But just as Williams’s apparent simplicity of observation incorporated exquisite artistry (greatly informed, by the way, by modernist art), so, too, does Ferrario’s casual look conceal great visual precision and artistic ambition.

Titled “Signs & Remains,” this show of recent photographs centered on multi-image works, some of them arranged in horizontal sequences, others in large grids. Portici (2012) is a 12-print grid of dilapidated black-and-white tiled sidewalks or floors that Ferrario, who lives and works in Massachusetts, spotted on a visit to her native Italy. The ensemble is at once a spirited riff on the history of grid painting, from Mondrian to Agnes Martin, and a documentary record of shoddy workmanship and poor maintenance. While it’s immediately obvious what links the images in Portici, the connection in other works, particularly the horizontal compositions, can be more oblique. A four-print work titled Love (2012) offers images of party balloons caught in a leafless tree, some drawings on a blackboard, a weathered wooden sign and a partly torn away poster on which the word “love” can still be made out. Each forlorn image could be a metaphor for the vicissitudes of human relationships, but at the same time the piece seems to be about Ferrario’s boundless curiosity for the effects of entropy and for formal visual correspondences.

She also has an eye for comic effects. Adam and Eve (2012) discovers male and female sexual symbols on a variety of surfaces; in another four-panel work, one image frames a discarded sofa cushion where the creases and upholstery buttons have accidentally made a smiley face. This is not exactly an apparition of the Virgin Mary, but it does suggest a similar faith in the miraculous nature of images. Despite this interest in accidental icons, Ferrario pays careful attention to abstract shapes. The largest work in the show, the 36-photo-grid Modern Highrise with View of the Acropolis (2010) chronicles the artist’s stay in a run-down Athens apartment building where she found a wealth of formal relationships and interesting surfaces.

People are most often evoked via traces, but we do get a partial glimpse of the artist herself when her left hand intrudes into the frame to present isolated objects to the camera lens. This series of single prints titled “Hands” (2011-12) features, among other things, a hard-boiled egg, a bar of soap, a child’s toy, a mushroom, a decaying dead mouse. It is a visual poem about life, death, sustenance and time. As Williams advised: “No ideas but in things.”

Photo: Paola Ferrario:
Hand #3, 2011, inkjet print, 8½ by 11 inches; at RWFA.