EXHIBIT: James Johnson & Christine Shank: "Inside/Insight," photographic works (re)visioning interior scenes. Firehouse Gallery, Burlington. Through April 14.
ARTWORK:"She had been told it was not a possibility" by Christine Shank
Implied photographic narratives haunt "Inside/Insight," currently on view at Burlington's Firehouse Gallery. One of the two exhibiting artists redefines the boundaries of his medium; the other invents provocative images by altering the scale of settings that suggest domestic crises. Firehouse curator Ruth Erickson astutely noted of this powerful show, "Throughout history, photography has been associated with capturing accuracy, but in this exhibition, James Johnson and Christine Shank use photography to render what they have imagined visible." The two nationally emerging artists combine a unique conceptual foundation with a sophisticated attention to craftsmanship.
The dozen 24-by-30-inch color C-print photographs of Shank's "Interiors" series, created during 2005 and 2006, preserve starkly Kafkaesque moments as played out in dramatically lit, miniature model-room interiors. Her artist statement notes that each portrays "an aftermath of a destructive event." Peeling faux wallpaper, bricked-up doors and empty picture frames are among the strangely symbolic details in Shank's interiors. And like film noir cinematography, her careful manipulation of shadows and muted use of color charge the disheveled, unpeopled scenes with heightened emotional tension.
There's also a slightly claustrophobic feel to many of the works, as Shank regularly employs rectangles within horizontal, rectangular compositions. In her piece entitled "1035 unforgettable little mistakes," a bright, empty room with apparent bullet holes on its back wall appears through a darker anteroom in the foreground. As in all of Shank's works, the wall riddled with perforations is part of a carefully designed, Lilliputian stage set. Other interiors include furnishings fabricated in the tradition of Victorian dollhouse accoutrements. The hyperrealism of Shank's details - such as the carpentry of a banister, a fancy lampshade and elaborate wallpaper patterning - amplify her disorienting shifts of scale.
Shank's titles obliquely outline the events of her narratives. In "They said it wouldn't get any worse than this," a burgundy-colored rug is draped over a lump in the middle of an empty room. Two doors appear on the far wall; the left one is slightly ajar. In "She had been told it was not a possibility," actual flames leap from an Oriental rug. An emerald-green, 18-paned window glows above the flame. How the titles relate to activities witnessed in each room can only be surmised.
While Johnson's technical approach is entirely different than Shank's, he shares her voyeuristic interest in interiors. His sole work in the show is "Mrs. Mabel's Apartment Brooklyn New York."
Johnson created a brilliant, wall-sized installation consisting of three two-way mirrors centered in the middle of the Firehouse's back gallery. A 3-by-5-inch window at roughly eye level floats, almost like a hologram, deep within the plane of the middle mirror. When peered into, it reveals the chambers of "Mrs. Mabel's Apartment." Although the effect is three-dimensional, the inner image is generated by elaborately backlighting various photographs on the other side of the mirror - "through the looking glass," as it were. Smaller windows in the flanking two-way mirrors reveal other inner-room details. Of course, the viewer's reflection is omnipresent as well.
Rather than shielding from public view the complex mechanical wizardry behind "Mrs. Mabel's Apartment Brooklyn New York," Erickson allows the amazed audience to peruse the structure behind Johnson's weird illusions. His masterpiece would be equally well suited to a display in a science museum, and that's not a pejorative assessment. The medium of photography has historically informed, and been informed by, both realms of human discovery.
Shank received her MFA in photography in 2004 and is an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Johnson's 2002 MFA in photography was awarded by the Rochester Institute of Technology, generally considered the most important photography program in the U.S. He now teaches at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Thus established within the critical context of academe, both artists are well poised to continue redefining the meaning, and presentation, of photography in the 21st century.