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Sharon Lockhart
June 19–August 23, 1998

Sharon Lockhart
Untitled, 1996
c-print, edition of 6
32 x 43 inches
From the collection of Andrew Ong, NY

Sharon Lockhart's photographs emphasize vision, visuality, and the pleasure of looking. Her large enigmatic color photographs are minutely descriptive-a sweater's nubby yarn contrasts with skin which contrasts with a verdant landscape. Lockhart renders all aspects of the physical image with a specific clarity that while fully descriptive of skin, textiles, and atmosphere, leaves the viewer adrift-unconnected from the images' metaphorical potential. The figures are unknowable except for their physicality, because, ironically, the dense descriptive nature of the image, while clarifying for us landscape or detailing skin's surface, constructs a barrier to understanding the landscapes or anything about the figures except that they are. Like the tradition of densely descriptive 17th-century Dutch paintings, "instead of interpretive depth we are offered a great and expansive attention to specificity of representation." (1) Through the artificial mechanism of the camera, Lockhart's saturated colors describe the world with that same painterly clarity, suggesting how these two representational strategies and practices intersect in her photographs.

Lockhart emphasizes the apparatus of the camera, demonstrating a moment of descriptive filmic intervention rather than one of visual storytelling. Because Lockhart makes the viewer aware of the camera's mechanism, she undermines the traditional suspension of disbelief in the metaphoric possibilities of a photographic image-think of movie still photographs and how we tend to invent a story. Instead, we comprehend that her images are artificially constructed moments in time that describe the physical world, and some people in it, not the story of the physical world or the story of the individuals pictured. Like 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer who "presents the image as all we have," Lockhart reveals nothing but the image-landscape, atmosphere, trees, people, sweater, and skin. (2) These elements are neither emblematic nor symbolic; they do not stand in for something else. Rather, Lockhart's figures and landscapes are objects of her visual attention, myriad surfaces described to us in a visible field.

In Portrait of a Boy, the boy appears sexually indeterminate, so startlingly natural as to seem genderless. Lockhart presents his childishly full face and creamy skin in a three-quarter view while the boy looks directly into the camera. Lockhart positions the boy in the extreme foreground-he seems so close to us-and while the background drops away from him it is still in focus and we easily "read" its agrarian abundance. The boy's vibrant red sweater contrasts sharply with the green fields framing his shoulders. Because we are steeped in the language of visual culture, especially photography-think of advertising-the boy's youthfulness may suggest that he be understood beyond his physical body, that we intuit something psychological about him. As art historian Griselda Pollock notes, "Adolescence is the key condition; it is a moment of lack, waiting to be filled with meaning ... Adolescence is posited as a period of transition between the lack and the completion." (3) We may strain to add meaning to what we understand to be a "moment waiting to be filled with meaning," but Lockhart leaves the viewer without any suggestion of what lies beyond the beautifully specified surfaces of skin, clothing, or hair. According to Robert Rosen in Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors, Even in the face of totally nonrepresentational works, viewers have a powerful urge to uncover or invent narrative-a basic need to normalize the challenge of the unfamiliar by situating it in a comfortably recognizable sequence of events. (4) Though Lockhart's images are representational, they may strike us with the same impulse because we want to know what the pictured scenes may mean. Yet the artifice of Lockhart's photographed scenes are visual spaces from which we are cut off, even when, for instance, the boy in Portrait of a Boy looks directly at the camera. Because he seems to look at the camera rather than at anyone beyond his photographic space, he does not connect with us, nor does he draw us into his world. We are blocked from that world, captured by Lockhart's unnerving ability to depict its naturalness. Conversely and perversely, that pictorial ease creates a barrier for us to psychologically or emotionally access the image in the way that we are used to, or feel we are entitled to, by the supposed naturalness of the image and the fact that, as in a snapshot, he is a real boy and his "familiarity" fuels our need to know him. Lockhart's photograph constructs a specified image-a person in a place-but does not invent grounds for comprehending the interior life of her subject.

Because all of the works are untitled except Portrait of a Boy, no text intersects with the image to produce a narrative. With titled images, meaning can emerge from the intersection of the image and a title. In Lockhart's untitled images, however, the image intersects with itself and we further find that none of the figures in this exhibition engages the viewer. In another untitled work, a girl drapes her head, shoulders, and arms across a table, the skin on her arms amply described by the play of light across the entire upper surface of that arm. The cool surface of the glass table slickly contrasts with the flesh of the girl's arm, and we are not invited into her silent world. In another photograph, figures of man and child stand with their backs toward us, engaged by and connected to the landscape before them. That foggy landscape, which drops precipitously away from the figures, allowing us a misted view of treetops, is similarly unknowable, but fully described with Lockhart's filmic mark. What can we make, then, of what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls the "aesthetics of curiosity" that these unknowable figures suggest?5 Lockhart wittingly produces in us desire to know these figures because the private, secretive nature of the figures in these photographs is a seductive invitation. Perhaps hers is an invitation only to enjoy observing, rather than knowing.

If the aim of 17th-century Dutch painters was to capture, on a surface, knowledge and information about the world, based on the material wealth of Dutch society and new fascination with seeing the world and making it visible through microscopes, mirrors, and the camera obscura, Lockhart's photographs similarly seem aimed at the same goal-to make this world, here and now, visible. Her landscape images function in the same inscrutable visual field as do her figural images. The two landscapes in this exhibition-a snowy, wintery scene and an enormous tree-specify a physical, atmospheric moment in earthly time. In all of her images, Lockhart has made the world visually, not psychologically accessible. Ultimately, whether through the figure or the landscape or both, Lockhart's strategies for organizing space, color, light, and objects within a photographic frame coalesce not into a coherent narrative or even individual stories, but rather into individually described visual moments dedicated to the pleasure of looking.

Dana Self
Curator

 

Notes
1. Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1983) p. 207.

2. Alpers, p. 188.

3. Griselda Pollock, "Rethinking Early Thoughts on Images of Women," The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1990) p. 212.

4. Robert Rosen, "Notes on Painting and Film," in Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors, exhibition organized by Kerry Brougher, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; catalogue edited by Russell Ferguson, (New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1996) p. 252.

5. Laura Mulvey, "Pandora: Topographies of the Mask and Curiosity," Sexuality and Space, ed. Beatriz Colomina, (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992) p. 65. Works in the Exhibition