Landscapes of the Mind: Metaphor, Archetype, and Symbol: 1971-2012
October 5, 2012 through January 10, 2013
YWCA Women’s Art Gallery
By Jonathan Kamholtz
In Jane Alden Stevens’s “Windbreak Netting,” a mesh curtain hangs between us and the apples growing on a tree in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. The curtain protects the apples, but also serves to keep us at a distance, like a theater scrim. It also serves to remind us that in Stevens’s work, we see and experience nature through a filter of human intention and intervention. Stevens wants us to understand that Japanese apple-growing is labor intensive, and though she does not really ask us to get to know the laborers who appear, if at all, as blurred, partly-visible figures, their work is to be seen everywhere. Each developing apple is covered with a red bag which is covered with a second silver bag. The best fruits are stenciled in red before they are picked. The harvest is repeatedly culled, making it clear that what a Japanese consumer has a chance to purchase as an apple represents a series of human judgments about what the best apple might look like, and, indeed, what an apple is.
In “Red Inner Bag #1,” the bags hang from the fruits like bright red stylized flowers. In “Ripening,” the growing apples are bursting through the red bags, the silver outer bags having fallen away around them and scattered on the ground like autumn leaves. (In other pictures, those bags will be burned.) The fruit is starting to blush red, though they may never become quite so bright and saturated as the bags. Stevens’s work belongs to the tradition that notes that the nature we experience is not carefree, but a world in which humans have worked; in return, nature gives to the human world a capacity to become like nature itself, as the apples allow their growers to make these richly red flowers. In “Bagged Apple #1,” an apple is tucked inside its envelope-shaped bag. Backlit and almost a ghostly presence, the apple is small but growing, confined by the bag but of uncertain shape and size, an image that could be part of an ultrasound examination or a frame from Alien. It is a reminder that we are dealing with sex and birth, powerful forces indeed.
The human element is, literally, most sharply in focus in “Imperfect Apple,” a close-up of an apple of uncommonly beautiful color held up to the camera in a worker’s hand. Perhaps it was too small, or shaped, on closer examination, too much like a plum. The picture is a human judgment made tangible. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years, we’ll all be clamoring for small but delectable plum-apples.
Stevens’s photographs also remind us of the complex networks of ways that photographs communicate with their viewers. Some, but not all, are conventionally beautiful; some, but not all, exemplify the crispness that contemporary technology allows the photographer to capture; some, but not all, could have been drawn from a National Geographic documentary about the values and rituals of other cultures. The photographs of Judi Parks, who also curated this strong and significant show, are deeply interested in the porous boundaries of photography’s documentary capabilities. Though her work seems deeply rooted in the look of black and white street photography which tends to document circumstance and the individual, Parks has written about how individuals, especially those outliers who have been apparently disowned by mainstream society, come to constitute timeless archetypes. In Parks’s photographs, there are no clean or tidy fingernails in sight; caked with dirt, they stand for a type of life lived, and it is the work of other photographers to explore how they got that way. I am not sure if Parks wants us to think that life has exposed their archetypal nature and the photographer faithfully captured it, or that the photographer sees through the mask of the everyday and uses photography to reveal what might otherwise pass unseen.
Her selection of her work highlights tensions between people who are particularized individuals and those who seem to have ventured over into broader symbolic categories of human experience. “The Absolution” captures a woman feeding pigeons, her hand raised as it throws some processed carbohydrate or other towards the birds and the viewer, while other people sit or walk by, unnoticing. The title works to refocus our attention on the upraised hand, as if in blessing, rather than on the spray of feed or any possible social context. (Imagine if it had been titled “Maggie, the Homeless Pigeon Lady of Constitution Park.”) Like many of the faces in Parks’s pictures, the woman appears placid, or perhaps stolid; her flattened affect suppresses the expression of individuality but allows feelings and significations to be projected into her. The walker in the city may encounter a world of spirit, as “Trinity” suggests: a girl, standing in front of a wall covered with grim public decoration and a hint of graffiti which surrounds her head with a penumbra. She holds the hand of a man talking to another. The girl looks away and up, having seen something greater than their interaction, or perhaps something more awful.
Parks’s city is filled with signs and markings, some extraordinarily suggestive. One photo interweaves women’s arms—I counted five hands, seven rings, three bracelets, and at least two cigarettes—one bearing the tattoo “Choice.” Is it depicting a stance on gender politics? Life philosophy? Is she choosing to smoke? To be herself? In another, a decaying sign over a pawn shop seems to read “Money = Loan,” a highly provocative critique of urban capitalism and materialist assumptions about the inevitability and permanence of property. In “Jesus Saves,” a man with a sign quoting scripture sits on a low wall in front of a thick hedge, surrounded by a can of Pepsi, the remains of a sandwich, and a densely typed page. (His script? His eviction letter? A draft of a grant proposal?) His face is cheerful, not vacant. He is clean and well-shaved, and could be a CEO, though he is wearing a trainman’s overalls. But like pawned goods, property is transient, and clothes in Parks’s photographs seem to have been frequently repurposed. Pictures like this seem to suggest that individuals could bear what Parks sees as their archetypal truths into the world without knowing it.
Nancy Rexroth’s work is drawn from a trove of photographs she took in the early 1970s in small towns in southeast Ohio. A group of them were published in 1976 as Iowa, for their power to evoke her plains state childhood. Twenty of the negatives were drawn for this exhibition from pictures not printed with that original set. They tend to show a lower middle class world, rural but a little crowded with houses. We see no pictures of people at work, but get a vibrant sense of the sort of world people in Carpenter, Pageville, Amesville, Sugar Creek, and Coolville might come home to after work. In places like “Winter House 2,” we see houses that are continual works in progress, built onto. They have porches (as in “Winter House 1”), though they are not being celebrated for their airiness. Doors open onto dark spaces from which furniture seems about to tumble out. In many of the pictures, there is a wonderful mixture of clutter and clarity. Weeds seem about to climb the stairs.
Rexroth’s project, famously, was technological as well as sociological. The pictures were all shot with the plastic toy “Diana” camera which featured severely limited adjustments and which, compared to today’s multi-megapixel digital images which can be manipulated to an almost infinite degree, recorded relatively little information on each negative. The restrictions set Rexroth free. In an evocative match between her subject matter and her tool, Rexroth recorded a world where contrast gave way to blur and where there were very few straight lines. There is vignetting around what she has called “the sweet spot.” (It is as if Instagram was invented to allow everyone access to some aspects of Rexroth’s vision.) Her design often focuses on a central space which is anticlimactic (as in “Landscape,” where blurry trees and weeds form a garland around emptiness in the middle). The pictures perpetually hint at a world where fragments might come together into fuller narratives, and in that way have seemed over the decades to suggest dreams, if not the vivid landscape of an actual dream, the hazy and incomplete world of dreams remembered in the morning.
The visual field feels very complicated, but there are seldom as many as two things going on at the same time. The pieces of the world we see seem isolated from each other, yet are compositionally often tightly interlocked, as in the elegant design of “Clara in the Closet.” It’s not always clear how contiguous the spaces are or how much space there to move around; there is a Piranesi quality to Rexroth’s domestic architecture. Clara herself is something of a mystery. She might be coming or she might be going; she might be a large woman or a blurry skinny one. In another picture with human subjects, two girls are playing, or parading, in the raking light of the “End of Day.” For Rexroth, it is a crowded picture, though it is still achingly empty in the center. In the foreground, a disconnected hand is gesturing, or making a signal. And what about the other girls’ hands? Are they also signaling? What has meaning and what doesn’t? It also made me wonder as well what the picture might have looked like if Judi Parks had taken it, or, say, if Nancy Rexroth had taken “Choice.”
There is a dense minimalism to Rexroth’s photographs. Never having enough to see a complete story, do we as viewers move in to complete them from our own dreams, memories, and fantasies? Or do we find them haunting precisely because they are so incomplete? Though they were taken with a child’s toy, I do not think they encourage us to see as children do. We see the simplicity of the images with the aesthetic and moral sense of an adult, flavoring them with longing and regret.