While I was working at the library today, shelving books in the photography section, I came across a book called Uncovered: Photographs by Thomas Allen. I opened the cover and immediately recognized the work. I’d seen it somewhere hanging on the walls of a gallery in New York over a year ago, probably at MoMA or in SoHo. I remember loving the pop-up book quality, the seemingly flashlight-lit images—ever so carefully sculpted photographs of drawings of characters, which I think were taken from illustrations of old book covers and insides. Allen cuts the images with his blade and sets them up in a tiny diorama/stage, beautifully lights them, and takes pictures of them.
For the longest time, a postcard from the show has been propped up against the wall on my nightstand in my bedroom. It still stands there at my parents’ house today. It was one of my favorite images, called Uncovered.
I love the way Allen composes the figures, in their dramatic poses and costumes, within the frame. They tell their own stories apart from their original literary representations. And it seems the photos with a man and a woman often have an overt sexual tension, which I think existed on the characters’ facial expressions already—Allen simply points to it by arranging them the way he does. I also love that the figures walk across the book, out of the book, through the book. They’re alive and evoke a warm feeling of intimacy one might feel reading a good book in a cozy chair.
The figures’ white crinkles give them a sense of age and respect—these are not the obnoxiously flashy, clean, brightly-colored cartoon characters we see in advertising or in the media today—they’ve been around all along, they’ve weathered, they’ve seen it all.
To see for yourself, visit Thomas Allen’s exhibition at Foley Gallery web site:
At 49 Geary Street, a large gallery building in San Francisco, I saw an exhibition of Inez Storer’s paintings. Most of them were large in size but intimate in feeling—they seemed to capture personal histories as well as portions—glimmers—of Mexican history. The paintings were collages of sorts with pieces of newspaper, paper flowers, and handwritten writing glued to the canvas.
Two of my favorite paintings in the collection (one entitled Curandera’s Cure) both featured yellowed, layered pieces of paper with elegant cursive writing in the bottom quarter of the canvas, visually set apart from the rest of the painting. The writing, in Spanish, seemed like letters dated back several decades. Layered over the letters are faint drips of paint and pieces of paper, creating a fragmented feeling of someone’s life recollected. In both paintings, above the writing is a portrait of sorts, a simply-depicted figure with flowers below or to the figure’s side. In Curandera’s Cure, the figure is juxtaposed with a colorful headstone-looking object, but the headstone seems colorful and optimistic rather than mournful or melancholy. Above the figure in the other painting (title unknown) the words “The Ordinary Life of Natalia Ortiz” are painted in capital letters. Other little figures are placed on the canvas, such as a cartoon-like man dressed in white with a bird perched on his shoulder, or little stick-drawing pieces of furniture above Natalia Ortiz’s name.
What I like most about these paintings is the depth they create with the layers. Storer writes about her painting process and how when she paints, she often creates layers over layers that she then peels off and covers. With the various mediums she glues to her canvasses, with her deep turquoise, her bright yellows, and hints of red and tangerine, I got lost in the thickness of the world she creates.
I would’ve liked to learn more about the historical significance to Storer’s works, but the gallery had little information other than her artistic biography.
I also saw Mona Juhn’s exhibition, Native, and wasn’t sure I understood the connection between her nude figures and plants—other than the assumption that they were all native to the place she shot them. Technically, the textures and shapes in her frame are beautiful, and I love her shallow depth of field. But all of the images are cool in color and feeling; they feel false. They feel like fashion photography; the nudes (all young, thin, and attractive) are splayed out on beds or in chairs in a careful, posed manner. They have no documentary quality; they seem like beauty shots, painstakingly awkward and purposefully unnatural, but highly sexual.
One image in particular features a nude woman sitting, or slumping, in a chair and looking to the right of the frame. There is no honesty and therefore no point of interest in her confident facial expression. Her poor posture makes her appear feeble and submissive like many images you would see in a fashion magazine, her body language playfully, girlishly sensual.
The images, though technically beautiful, are conceptually disappointing and confusing.
It’s hard not to be charmed and intrigued by images in America during the ’50s and ’60s. Young handsome sailors picking out postcards to send home, old gentlemen playing bocci ball, young boys fishing, the city going about its business. Lyon’s exhibit, San Francisco Then, was on its way off the walls (the gallery was in between exhibits) but I was very glad to see his work. All black and white images, high contrast, beautiful light, I loved the dramatic amount of space Lyon covers in his frame.
One the smaller images, Huntington Hotel, was one of my favorites. The facade of the large, unremarkable hotel at night is lit up in sporadic squares of the hotel windows; dark, crisp silhouettes of trees stand in the foreground. The photograph documents a wonderful nature vs. man-made in a very simple way. Because there are no people in the windows or on the street, the image is about the shapes and light of the rectangular windows, and how their glow pops and fades behind the broccoli-shaped tree figures. I could see the yellow of the windows and the slight dark green of the trees, if I looked long enough.
This assertion (the one I list below) could be applicable to several types of artists. For instance, photographers who look at everyday objects and light differently because they’re eternally thinking about the frame. Or painters who perhaps are always searching for shapes, concepts, colors.
It puts the power of creating art in the hands of the artist, not at a passing moment of “inspiration” that may or may not come. For me, moments of inspiration feel strong at some times and weak at others, but that does not mean I cannot create something at all times, that there is a cut and dried border between “inspired” and “uninspired,” or that artists should succumb to these seeming feelings.
Some great art comes from accidents, moments of boredom or inactivity. Creative energy can accelerate and accumulate from these more still moments.
“The poet is never inspired, because he is the master of that which appears to others as inspiration. He does not wait for inspiration to fall out of the heavens on him like roasted ortolans. He knows how to hunt, and lives by the incontestable proverb, ‘God helps them that help themselves.’ He is never inspired because he is unceasingly inspired, because the powers of poetry are always at his disposition, subjected to his will, submissive to his own activity…”—Raymond Queneau