I Am Not So Different
Art Palace, Austin
Through August 5
by Sean Ripple
Jesus Campfire Stick, 2009
See image gallery for full caption
Let’s get this out of the way right at the front: a photograph doesn’t lie, unless of course the photographer is looking to tell a fib. Just as the page is to the author, the camera is subject to the perspective and intentions of the photographer. Lured by the notion of objectivity, it seems we are constantly trying to deny that the reality depicted in a photograph is inseparable from the mind that has called the image into being. I suspect we desire that the camera speak objectively about our world because we are survival-driven creatures; we possess an insatiable appetite for the life-fortifying quality found in the world of fact… but even facts have their authors.
I Am Not So Different, a photography show in the Project Room at Art Palace curated by Austin’s Rachel Cook, features the work of five U.S. and one London-based artist. Each of the pieces in the exhibit highlights the idea that the appearance of reality plucked from our world using a camera is but one surface result sculpted from many possible outcomes. In particular, these image-makers are concerned with studying the space between the abstract and concrete. Augusta Wood’s stunning photograph on the back wall, moving on the edges of things (2005), speaks to this point elegantly. Here, an upside down perspective of trees against an overcast sky reflected onto a pool of water dominates the image. The title for the work comes from a phrase neatly handwritten in black paint on the light blue wall sitting just above the water line of the swimming pool that contains the water. This playful flip of up/down orientation within the picture plane, coupled with the perfect bit of didacticism (our visual and philosophical anchor), reminds you that seeing is merely surface, while meaning is created through thinking and feeling about what is being observed. The world in the photograph is simultaneously impossible and common, and it never succumbs to the gravity of either trait, but asks irrationality and plausibility to meet on that narrow strip of text above the surface of the water, fusing and fixing them to one another.
Spiritual turmoil is the subject of Anna Krachey’s photo Jesus Campfire Stick (2009). Here, a found block of wood with a handwritten prayer conversation about a person’s psychic struggle with masturbation is on display, defying its fiery burnt offering destiny. Again, text brings us to a place that image often has hard time getting to. The prayer, so grammatically awkward and pubescent in its admission of failure and longing for spiritual purity, is a peak into a diary of the most pathetic sort. The sadness and humor found in the piece isn’t of the contemptuously mocking while finger-pointing variety; it’s closer to the humor found in a comedy of errors and evokes compassion for common human failings. Not quite a portrait of an object or person, what is remarkable about Krachey’s photo is that it captures the transference of guilt from person to object, like a document of transubstantiation.
Erin Shirreff’s 8 hour video piece, Day is Long, Night is Longer, and Nothing is Longest (2006) located in the center of the room, bridging what I saw to be a stronger body of work on the left side of the room with the less interesting right side, works as a conventionally composed still life set in motion, yet the motion portrayed never truly brings the image out of the realm of the still life. In the video, an open Mac laptop sits atop a wooden table, its turned-off screen staring blankly at the viewer, while a candle burns and a hunk of clay continually rotates, changing its abstract shape in accordance with the whim of an unseen sculptive force. The clay never becomes a concretely recognizable shape and is our stand in for nothing—day is the candle and the screen is our night. This piece, with its lovely blurring of distinction between the moving picture and the still, attempts to nail the viewer to an eight-hour time commitment so that one can truly contemplate a still life, yet it knows this attempt to nail the viewer down will not succeed; even if a viewer wanted to sit with the piece for eight hours during the exhibition run, Art Palace’s viewing hours prevent it. I found the piece to be a palpable example of critical theorist Frederic Jameson’s highfalutin estimation that video is a preeminent medium of our point in history because it sits precisely at the seam between space and time.
A number of the photographs in the show (Jessica Mallios’ in particular) failed to captivate, but I wouldn’t say that this was an error of selection on Cook’s part. To me, the photos worked as punctuation marks for the sentences formed by Wood, Krachey and Shirreff. Given more exhibition space, I’m sure the problem would become an asset (the best sentiments still need their commas and periods), but in the small project room the photos felt unnecessary.
According to the media release on Art Palace’s website, the selected images featured in the show are largely abstract, yet are positioned within our experience of reality. And this is a fine way to think the work featured in I Am Not So Different. Each of the artists in the exhibition is a city, if not a universe, of subjectivity, inventively using the object of the photo to frame an ever-emerging world of shared experience.
Sean Ripple is a multimedia artist and writer based in Austin.