I Am Not So Different

Art Palace, Austin

Through August 5
by Sean Ripple

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      Augusta Wood
      moving on the edges of things, 2005
      49 x 49 inches
      Courtesy Cherry & Martin

      View Gallery

      Anna Krachey
      Jesus Campfire Stick, 2009
      See image gallery for full caption

      View Slideshow

      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.

      + 1 Comment
      Barry Stone
      Jul 19, 2009 | 7:06pm

      Thanks Sean for taking the time to write and think deeply about this interesting show. Kudos must also go out to Rachel Cook for curating and Arturo Palacios for hosting a show about contemporary photography here in Austin at Art Palace. As with any intriguing exhibition, this intriguing group of images provides us an opportunity to engage in a dialog about the nature of images and photography. In this spirit, I am posting some impressions of the show in relation to what you have thoughtfully laid out in your review.

      Perhaps the schism between abstraction and representation is not the best framework in which to consider these artists.  Instead, it might be fruitful to think of these images in terms of their tendency toward or away from narrative. In this light, Augusta Wood’s inclusion in the show makes sense. I find it a stretch to consider her work as anything approaching abstraction. Her coy in situ insertion of texts into the environment she photographs simultaneously constricts and redirects our interpretation of the image. This connotation procedure of adding text to an image, as Barthes termed it, is a method of making the mechanical image appear more subjective. She is both creating an overt narrative space for the viewer and at the same time offering a document of a kind of performance.
      Jessica Mallios’ work, in contrast, deals head on with notions of abstraction in photography. Perhaps her image (Untitled, 2008) included in the review’s slide show best exemplifies the show’s premise, if in fact the premise does deal with abstraction. This image depicts, or appears to depict, only light, which is an utter negation of the narrative impulse so commonly associated with photography.  It has been argued that the salient feature of photography as a method of representation is its physical relationship to the subject. Light reflected from the subject forms the image on the camera’s film or digital sensor. This image, then, has an indexical relationship to what is placed before the lens. The subject had to be physically present during the picture-making process. I have no idea what Mallios’ photograph is a picture “of” and I think that is the point, and the result is a subversion of narrative and the index. Seen in juxtaposition with her clearly rendered image of crumpled foil, which unfortunately was hung at the front of the gallery far from the project space, you can see her using photography as a more traditional descriptive tool. The two, when seen together, would suggest that mechanical reproductions are anything but. The images question our assumptions about what cameras render and truly engage the idea of a photograph materially, as Winogrand stated, as mere “light on surface.” Mallios is playing a game of push and pull where the objects she photographs alternatively become masked and revealed through a medium traditionally associated with succinct elucidation. Both Mallios and Anna Krachey seem to be more involved with notions of sculpture, where the narrative is embedded in the objects they photograph, but also in the manner depicted. Why is this burned prayer stick in a guitar stand that seems to be placed onto a crazy quilted patchwork launch ramp in Krachey’s image? Surely this is a constructed image and ripe with narrative intrigue, as is Mallios’ light and crumpled foil. I was perplexed to read of Mallios’ work referred to as mere punctuation of an idea that I believe her work most directly engages.

      I was also disappointed that Adam Schreiber’s work did not merit mention. Adam Schreiber’s image, which is probably my favorite in the show, Haliburton Archiving Solutions (II) 1987, 2009 also deals with the strange life of objects and narrative. Here is an image that becomes paradoxically abstracted by so clearly rendering the object photographed. There is a narrative tension that exists between the mute object and the somewhat sinister implications of its title. What is this thing? What does it do? The well-seated object shown on a tabletop rendered in an impossible perspective, injects a skewed order into what should be a rational system, (i.e. archiving). Schreiber ‘s seemingly straightforward methodology opens up very complicated lines of inquiry dealing with the ontology of objects and the histories we are left to assign them.

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