Galerie Nicholas Robert
April 2 – May 7, 2016
The Darling Foundry
March 17 – May 22, 2016
In two concurrent exhibitions, photographic artist Lorna Bauer’s poetic sensibility and resonant voice emerge powerfully into the foreground.
While in Vancouver, exhibiting at Model Project Gallery, Bauer visited the home and surrounding gardens of the architect Arthur Erickson (1924–2009). The subject of Bauer’s scrutiny in the works exhibited here is the garden Erickson designed. Bauer was forbidden entry into the house—a blessing in disguise. Bauer was drawn to sundry elements of the garden (which vastly exceeded the dimensions of the house): dogwood trees, rhododendrons, azaleas, maidenhead ferns and blue fountain bamboo, to name but a few. The photographs she produces draw upon this bewildering floral quilt with acumen and audacity.
The images (some in colour, some in black and white) are abetted and extended by bronze castings of bamboo leaves and stalks deftly placed in adjacent intimacy to them on the wall or hanging from the ceiling. The installation of photographic and sculptural elements—including glass wind chimes hanging from the ceiling in the gallery window—form a palimpsest that is environmental in its mien,and wholly immersive. The layering of the exhibited images betrays staggered visual fields in which tenses collapse and ecstasy is still possible. The glass walls of the house act like mirrors that leave the spontaneously reversible illusion of looking in and looking out. We are enjoined to linger there, in meditative pause, mirroring Bauer’s own experienced time in the garden as a place of cascading epiphanies.
For some time now, Bauer has been making photographs, films, videos and sculptures that question orthodoxies of vision and summon sites of memory and experienced place into the present tense of seeing. She interrogates how images are constructed, represented and mediated, seen and felt. The photographs presented here are intriguing, seductive—altogether winning and new. While she has worked in the past from a largely grisaille and seemingly more austere palette, here she conjures some manifestly sensuous images with brilliant chromatic incidents from the flora and their textural properties. They were also—and this is true of all her work to date—intrinsically subversive and self-reflexive in their mien.
These abiding thematic concerns are demonstrated in her concurrent show at the Darling Foundry. In these phenomenally restless images, created mostly while on a three-month residency at the Couvent des Récollets in Paris in late 2013 and early 2014, Bauer attempts to capture fragments of experience and imagistic minutiae that are too easily lost in time, too readily lost to history. Between the specific and the tangential, her images shift like restless tumbleweeds caught in a strong spring breeze.
Bauer may choose to work in the medium of analogue photography—in open defiance of the digital tsunami that has now all but subsumed us, as it were—but her work is a philosophical exploration of possible worlds still undreamt of by either her peers and predecessors. It is as though she has chosen to step outside traditional photography altogether, like a stealthy contrarian ninja, in order to better examine how to loose its innards and unforeseen potential. Bauer thinks in terms of the implementation of images and the epistemology of things seen.
In the works at the Darling, fugitive echoes of Lewis Baltz and Hans Haacke, Eugene Atget, and Charles Marville are only just that: fugitive. Was that not a rumour of Clarence John Laughlin’s Leg-a-Head and His Operating Device (1961) I saw instantiated on a back wall there? Still, there is no evident quoting here—Bauer’s high level of formal invention renders that inadmissible and moot. She presents haunting surfaces that rest upon the fundament of unlikely depths. For instance, that fugitive and perhaps irreverent reference to Eugène Atget serves not to somehow valourize anything like the Atgetian romantic tradition, but to invert it. She finesses a neat conceptual pirouette that allows her to suggest mirroring or doubling, an absence of meaning and an always-already functioning methodological epoch rather than remembrance, memorialization, eulogy, or whatnot, within the wide compass of a shadowy palette enlivened by unexpected chromatic values and layered veils.
The photographs taken in the jardin des plantes shown at the Foundry are relatable to those of the Erickson garden at Galerie Nicholas Robert and are not just the photographic souvenirs of a perennial garden lover, however ardent. What begins in taxonomy, sometimes ends in talismanic excess—ecstasy even—for eyes that look and minds that understand. She also integrates sculptural/structural elements, such as panes of non-reflective purple glass, in the same way that the cast leaves render the works exhibited at Robert environmental volume and vectorial expanse rather than conventional installation. Once again, her handiwork is discernible in an exquisite rightness of placement and proximity. The perceived relationship of one work to another and to others is as important as the works themselves.
Bauer’s work is captivating precisely because she is so shrewd in her choices and consummately nimble in sidestepping the orthodox traps and catalepsies lurking within a tradition that is well-nigh exhausted yet still soldiering on through entrenched habit and conditioned reflex. In her work, she encourages the viewer to lose their moorings in the “real” and to enter a zone of maximum ambiguity, wherein anamorphosis is simply everything and questioning hand-me-down perceptual and procedural rules is de rigeur. She nimbly injects adrenaline into the hardened arteries of contemporary photographic practice and resuscitates its heart, often leaving palpable clues to her intention in plain sight.
The philosopher Edmund Husserl once insisted that, in order to determine the reality of a given object that we perceive, we eradicate the positing endemic to the natural attitude. And this is precisely what Bauer does: she parenthesizes the obvious in order to highlight what is, for her, the essential. She sets aside all predetermined photographic ideals—documentary and aesthetic—effectively bracketing them and putting them out of play, as it were, so that they will not cloud her judgement, nor trap her in redundant issues of self-serving virtuosity within the medium. In setting aside old conventions and archaic ideals, and evacuating static referents, she is thus able to achieve disruption of felt neutrality—and effect a razor-edged critique. In other words, even though Bauer works in analogue photography, she handily drives a stake through old ways of thinking.
Think of Lorna Bauer not as an artist beholden to or particularly respectful of photography’s recent past or the folklore of the moment where it finds itself now, but as a zealous vampire hunter: a pragmatic and wily interrogator of what photography is, can and will be.
James D. Campbell is a writer and curator based in Montreal who contributes regularly to Magenta Magazine among other publications.