The Body and The Landscape

Montreal

Celia Perrin Sidarous: Smoke Signals (Pink War), 2010. Inkjet print on matte paper. All images courtesy Galerie Lilian Rodriguez, Montreal.Celia Perrin Sidarous: Smoke Signals (Pink War), 2010. Inkjet print on matte paper. All images courtesy Galerie Lilian Rodriguez, Montreal.

By James D. Campbell

The Body and The Landscape
Galerie Lilian Rodriquez
March 2 – April 6, 2013

The Body and The Landscape featured the work of a diverse group of six women photographic artists, all offering highly personal and idiosyncratic takes on the human figure in the context of nature.

Jessica Auer’s "Meadow" series has been exhibited widely (and was reviewed in the Summer 2012 issue). While travelling in Europe, she investigated her own family tree and patriarchal lineage, having discovered that her family name effectively translates as ‘from the meadow’. She injects a full measure of the uncanny into the proceedings here, and then proceeds to show that what at first seem pristine and untouched meadows are, in fact, well-trodden tourist destinations and far from the idyllic landscapes they seem. Subtle signs of spoilage point to a human presence and subsequent contagion. By virtue of her untrammelled and luminous curiosity, Auer gets to have her cake and eat it, too. The compelling beauty of these images is in no way undermined, but are measurably abetted, by her ‘teaching stories’ of unwitting imperialism in the natural landscape.

Jinyoung Kim, a gifted photographer, sets out on a deeply personal trajectory that shares with Auer an investigation of her own patriarchal heritage. In the series “The Fathers in Sanctuary”, the Korean-born, Montreal-based photographer presents selected colour photographs taken while on a trip to South Korea with her father in the summer of 2011. (Her father had not been there since immigrating to Canada 13 years ago.) In the images exhibited here, Kim dilates in a moving and meditative fashion on her family history in the Korean homeland. Images of her father kneeling at a gravesite, sitting on a bench in a playground and seen among hibiscus flowers, are a fully resonant form of remembering. Each image is laden with remarkable gravitas and together form a vibrant palimpsest that is a tribute to family and a profound emotional portrait of its members.

Buenos Aires-born and -based Jasmine Bakalarz ’s large-scale colour portraits possess unprecedented clarity, singularly rich palettes and are, well, simply unavoidable. Consider Girl in Blue Dress (2011) from the “Beauty Pageant” series, a quintessentially Bakalarzian image of a young girl seen from behind in a radiant blue dress and extravagant coiffure. She demonstrates the exquisite poise and bearing required of her by the rules of the competition she is in and, in so doing, gives us no adequate ground to differentiate her from any female adult. Here, this photographer’s work registers something like profundity. In an extensive body of ongoing work exploring the full gamut of various children’s competitions, Bakalarz often uses the natural landscape as an idyllic backdrop to photograph her subjects at a formative moment in their development, engaging rich psychological and sociological dimensions. Her work shows us how idealized conventions of the beautiful are imposed on these children from without, and gives us the truth of identity self-fashioning and kindred social orthodoxies in ways that the televised Miss Universe and Miss America competitions — still so beloved by the American public — never could.

Like Bakalarz, Los Angeles-based Margaret Haines’ images feature young girls, but treated them more in meta-fictional than documentary terms. In Love With Stranger x COCO, a publication that preceded her feature-length film Coco (2012), Haines, using the narrative structure of Miguel de Cervantes’ magnum opus Don Quixote, focuses on three female protagonists: Coco, a character that appears in her film; Los Angeles artist and cult figure Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995), who achieved notoriety for her role in Kenneth Anger’s brilliant experimental film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954/66 — late 70s); and Haines’s own significant meditations on her subject. These excerpts from her dimensional portrayal of the young and hysterical girl ‘Coco’ are riveting and even hypnotic in their mien, as they lay bare angst-ridden rituals and sacrifices en route to self-realization or better, “making it” in late-capitalist culture in the United States.

Jasmine Bakalarz: Girl in Blue Dress (from the Beauty Pageant series, 2011). Inkjet print. All images courtesy Galerie Lilian Rodriguez, Montreal.Jasmine Bakalarz: Girl in Blue Dress (from the Beauty Pageant series, 2011). Inkjet print. All images courtesy Galerie Lilian Rodriguez, Montreal.In Tema Stauffer’s consummately edgy and invigorating "American Stills", created between 2000 and 2009, the itinerant American photographer makes her way through a wide swathe of the United States, capturing its dark side with rare discernment. To experience her images is to allow one’s voluptuous eye to sink into the unexpected and even unassimilable truths of America now. There is something deeply haunting about her work, which refuses any feint on our part towards apathy or indifference. In images that remind of us of luminaries like Frank, Arbus and Crewdson, Stauffer affixes her own imprimatur to a take on America that is both terrifyingly contemporary in tone and unnervingly apocalyptic in tenor. But, she also demonstrates a deeper epistemology of perspective, giving us insight into the layered thinking that lies behind images that are themselves deeply affecting. While visually captivating, Stauffer’s images capture and preserve the enduring mysteries of the purely liminal.

Celia Perrin Sidarous’s Smoke Signals (Pink War), 2010, documents an intervention in the landscape with deeply poetic overtones. At Gibraltar Point Beach on the Toronto Islands, a smoke grenade is ignited and photographed in the face of a coming storm. The reverberations of this one-time incident radically eclipse the documentary nature of the piece, conflating it with reveries of camouflage, emotional disguise and denouement of mood. The pink smoke has a poetic armature in the sense that it is not perceived as menacingly toxic but as an emanation of Gaia herself – or a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. Here a photographic artist’s simple act of observation and recording results in the most unlikely, ambiguous but entirely uplifting of epiphanies.

Noted photographic artist and Concordia University professor Marisa Portolese curated the exhibition in a particularly deft and evocative way. All these artists, in their own highly idiosyncratic ways, radically update the so-called rückenfigur compositional device. (Literally translated, the German term means “back figure,” and has often been used to describe figures viewed from behind, such as the aforementioned Girl in Blue Dress.) And yet here – and this holds true for all the works in the exhibition – the rückenfigur is anchored squarely in the retina of the viewer. All of the work invites viewers in as ‘halted travellers’ who are stopped short by the images, register their unknown quanta, and yet can meaningfully interact with the figures in the landscape and the landscape itself, and perhaps merge with them. That is perhaps the finest tribute one can offer to these photographers.