Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Only Apparently Real -- thrice-revised & reworked new review for Terminal City. Nothing's ever clear while composing, least of all to me, but I like this version the best of those I've posted here today. It's also the shortest, which is its own kind of lesson.

Spill 03: Paysages incertain
Isabelle Hayeur
Artspeak Gallery, through January 22nd, 2005
By Christopher Brayshaw

Montreal photographer Isabelle Hayeur’s panoramic landscapes deform time, slowing your viewing of them down to a crawl. This is not an experience traditionally associated with photography; most photographs -- even those whose scale implies that they are meant to be viewed as a kind of contemporary historical painting -- can be absorbed at a glance. Not so with Hayeur’s pictures. Part of this has to do with their size – six feet or longer, by only a foot high – but mostly it has to do with their content, which is fictitious. It is photography’s nature to depict things, and Hayeur’s images participate in this process up to a point. They are pictures of real things – milky overcast skies; wet highways; sand dunes; stream channels; trailer parks; shorelines; gravel pits; tract houses – but all these things have been altered by Hayeur, digitally clipped out of their original contexts and montaged into scenes which, while apparently real, have no independent ‘reality’ beyond the margins of the prints that present them to the viewer.

Looking at Hayeur’s work is a contemplative, drawn-out, and vaguely disturbing process. You begin at the edge of one – say Dunes (2003). A car is traveling along a wet East Coast highway under a pearl-grey sky. Beside the highway, a pullout is littered with wet gravel. Beyond the pullout, a grassy slope descends into a wasteland of shrub-studded sand dunes. Maybe it is more accurate to say that part of the slope descends, because another portion of it doesn’t, but curves back out toward you. In the far right hand corner of the picture another, lower road leads along the bank of a shallow stream, past a trailer park, and back out into the dunes. Now problems of composition and perspective begin to multiply. The road that goes past the trailers seems to emerge from nowhere, shooting out of the grassy foreground slope. Hot sunlight hits the trailers’ metal roofs, on the far right hand edge of the picture, but the sky at the picture’s left hand edge threatens rain. And the contours of the dunes in the center of the photograph seem to pulse and bubble and run off at odd angles, like the flickering brushstrokes in a Cezanne painting.

It’s as if the virtual world inside the photograph has been stretched across the surface of an enormous sphere, distorting it, then brought up flush with the gallery wall. And yet you have to look closely to take the full measure of Hayeur’s distortions and alterations. Her pictures’ wet grey light helps cut down on the number of conflicting shadows that would give her game away too easily, and there are whole linear feet of some photographs where no distortions occur, and the “reality” of her subjects is not called into question.

Hayeur’s methodology is not totally original; many artists are now working in the genre of what, for lack of a better phrase, I have begun calling “constructed landscape.” Matilda Azlizadeh’s video projection Sunday, shown in 2002 at Artspeak, is a thematic relative of Hayeur’s photographs; so too are the photographs by Evan Lee and Kevin Schmidt recently shown at Presentation House. What all three of these artists share is a skepticism regarding photography’s ability to seamlessly mirror the world. The camera has often been thought of as rationalism’s friend, a technological device designed to parse the world more and more finely, pursuing things beyond the bounds of human sight (Think of Walter Benjamin’s amazement at Karl Blossfeldt’s close-up botanical studies, or images of distant galaxies captured by radio telescopes). Artists like Hayeur imply that rationalism and photography are not as good friends as history might initially suggest. Photography is a vessel, nothing more, one that can equally well depict rationalism’s clear light of day, or Hayeur’s dreamy grey skies.

I admire the hallucinatory quality of Hayeur’s best pictures, the ones in which her digital manipulations are almost subliminal, and you need to search the image surface closely for evidence of them. These cool, stately pictures put me in mind of dreams I sometimes wake from – dreams in which, pursued, I flee from one geographically disconnected landscape into another: White Rock morphs into Horseshoe Bay, or Bellingham dissolves into Garibaldi Park. Though they are undeniably fantasies, I have never questioned the symbolic logic of these dreams; similarly, I do not question the power and accuracy of Hayeur’s fine disturbing pictures.

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