‘If These Walls Could Talk’ showing at Polyester

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By Jasmine Maharisi – News Editor

It’s difficult sometimes to make an argument for photographic art. After all, it’s a field that mirrors reality, meant to replicate life via the “human experience” channel. Far too often, though, “the human experience” theme is portrayed in photos lacking imagination, making it more akin to “the dry, uninteresting experience.”

The latest photography exhibit at Polyester gallery, 1618 Harney St., is anything but dry or uninteresting. The show, titled “If These Walls Could Talk,” (showing through Nov. 27) offers a refreshing glimpse of human existence in private moments. Featuring photographers Holly Andres, Beth Yarnelle Edwards and Dorothy O’Connor, the exhibit offer viewers substantial work that’s as articulate as it is aesthetically pleasing. In other words, no framed pictures of someone’s big toe is hailed as post-modern American realism. No semi-talented amateur black and whites are featured. Only works that stay true to the aesthetic principles of composition, color and lighting got a spot in this show.

The exhibit advertizes itself as exploring interior spaces as mediums for artistic, cultural and mental landscapes. The show includes 12 large-scale prints (all for sale) depicting environments such as living rooms, playrooms, bathrooms and, as in the work of O’Connor, the fusion of indoor/outdoor spaces.

It’s O’Connor’s work that functions as the exhibit’s centerpiece. Using colors, textures and subjects reminiscent of 18th century paintings, O’Connor’s trio of pictures bring back the delight in viewing photography.

In her piece “Room,” O’Connor zooms out on a woman, mid-thirties, standing dressed in an exquisite red and green strapless gown and white opera gloves. She poses with her head tilted and resting on her clasped hands as if asleep. Her gown stretches before her like an emerald sea of satin, filled with an array of objects: apples, seashells, birdcages and leaves. Behind her, burgundy textured wallpaper hangs loosely and rows of aged black and white portraits hang in gold decorative frames. She’s in an interior room, but four giant pinecones surround her and thick tree roots serve as a roof. Fake snow is everywhere. The powder, although unusual, suits the contrived environment well, its striking white hue contrasting the jewel color scheme.

It’s the marriage of the indoor and outdoor environments that make this photograph intriguing. Some elements, such as the burgundy wallpaper and the luxurious gown, communicate a sheltered environment, one protected from the elements and decorated with personal history suggested by the photographs. Other elements, such as the snow and tree roots, portray a natural, earthy environment, one that is free but impersonal and unaccommodating. The woman stands dispossessed at the collision of these two worlds, in the center of an enigma of time and space.

O’Connor’s photographs are tableaux vivants, a genre of art that incorporates costumed actors posing on a set to create a portrait. Tableaux vivants, or living pictures, aren’t exclusive to photography. During plays or theatrical performances before film was popular, actors would “recreate” paintings on stage, often depicting nude and semi-nude allegorical works.

On her website, O’Connor wrote that her main goal when beginning the scenes was to create an image around fire. The theme evolved as the project developed, as is often the case with artistic endeavors.

“Curiously though, the project began to take on a life of its own,” she wrote. “Each image became less about the series and more about telling a story. The desire to build certain components into each set became a compulsion for me, as did the need to make the image in my mind a reality.”

For Andres, whose work hangs adjacent to O’Connor’s, the desire to capture the crossroads of reality and fiction fuels her creative process. Several works from her series “Sparrow Lane” are displayed in the show, each showing adolescent girls alone in an upper-middle class family home. Their long blonde hair and ruffled 1940s style dresses, coupled with skeleton keys and magic elixirs, make Andres’ tableaux equal parts “Alice in Wonderland” and American Gothic.

The print titled “Magic Elixir” is a prime example of this. The image is of two girls, most likely sisters, standing in an impeccably clean bedroom. The oldest of the two girls, possibly 16 or 17, stands beside one of the two single beds while holding a spoon in one hand and a bottle of liquid medicine in the other. Beside her, an old-fashioned medicine bag sits on the bed. Her posture is perfect, as she’s caught in the act of tipping the medicine bottle ever so slightly, pinky erect and lips parted, anticipating the moment when the liquid hits the spoon.

The younger sister stands as lookout near the foot of the other bed, her head turned toward the unseen doorway just behind the viewer. She looks up, as if startled by something, her eyes large in surprise. The viewer is left to construct the scene because, as the show’s name suggests, these walls cannot talk.

But no image in the show taunts the viewer  more than Beth Yarnelle Edwards’ “Dyanne.” The photograph is part of Edwards’ Silicon Valley, Suburban Dreams series and centers on a dimly lit dining room. A middle-aged woman dressed in a black cocktail gown sits perpendicular to the viewer, her legs and bare feet outstretched. She looks down at her hands gripping her knees, her expression is contemplative as if she is recounting a scene in her head.

The image information states Dyanne is relaxing before a dinner party. But her face is too dark, her head too bowed and her shoulders far too erect for relaxation. She appears as if she’s struggling internally with the emotional and situational stressors typical of a woman of her status and education, such as troubles with her career or perhaps a fight with her spouse. She’s regrouping herself, trying to retain the composure she’ll need to survive the anticipated dinner party.

It’s this type of mystery that keeps the viewer captivated by the pieces in “If These Walls Could Talk.” It’s not typical of spectator participation. The artists aren’t revealing a scenario and leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks of the before and after. Rather, all three photographers provide the scenario and the viewer is left to accept that he or she will never know what events or circumstances surround the scene.

It’s here, in this revelation, that these photographs truly mimic real life. In real life, we don’t know the circumstances surrounding the scenarios of strangers. We are only left to fill in the blanks.

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