Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Photographic memory

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Melanie Willhide: Sleeping Beauties (The Box Under the Bed)
Ends Feb. 12, 2007.

Sleeping Beauties (The Box Under The Bed), Melanie Willhide's show in Real Art Ways' Real Room, consists of a series of digital color prints. These images reference the snapshots that lovers take of each other (and pack away when the sex turns to ex-). Not literally from "the box under the bed," they were staged by Willhide using "friends and admirers," according to her artist statement.

Memory is a particularly fertile topic these days in contemporary art. Perhaps this is related to postmodern reflections on the contingent nature of truth. When it comes to the intersection of the passage of time and our most emotionally charged relationships, the realm of memory is the locale where we struggle to keep our footing amid obscuring mists and the gravitational pull of the present.

In her artist statement, Willhide writes that:

Photographs lend permanency to experiences otherwise quickly lost. In this way they are capable of capturing the essential moments of our romantic life.

On the formal level, they are quite clever. Willhide foregrounds the medium used to preserve memories—the physical photograph—and deemphasizes the content, the image. What do I mean by this? For example, in "Tom," the image of a man, seen nude from pubic hair up, is a ghostly hint. While "Tom" is barely visible, we do see the yellowing of the back of the photographic paper (a signifier of aging, if ever there was one). The image is also marked by horizontal bands of sepia chemical lines and the embedded Kodak watermark identifying the paper's manufacturer.

In "January," the phrase "the most wonderful girl" is scrawled in purple ballpoint ink across a phantom image of a nude girl. The legend "This paper is manufactured by Kodak" is overprinted both in a magenta sideways vertical line and in repeated faded diagonals.

These images make a lot of conceptual sense. (I should note, as well, that they are quite attractive in an understated way.) That conceptual sense, though, is actually somewhat at odds with Willhide's confidence that "photographs lend permanency to experiences otherwise quickly lost."

The physical artifacts of memory do remain when the experience is past. And we use the images in the "box under the bed" to try and retrace our steps to that past. But even when the image is sharp and clear we can never truly reach our destination.

As a related digression, looking at Willhide's evocative images, I worry that we may be entering an age in which memory will be in crisis. Is it an intended or unintended irony that these are digital c-prints? Because with the current usurpation of traditional photography by digital imaging—and there is nor reason to believe that trend will be reversed—how many hard copy photos will be stashed in that box from now on?

Hit the "delete" button to initialize the hard drive of our hearts.


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