Different Dreams


This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for EDGE Magazine that never made it into the paper or onto the website. Normally I'd let it go, but I think this project is really great and Becky Field was amazing to talk to. It is too late at this point to see the show at the library, but her book is still for sale at RiverRun, Gibson's in Concord and online. Proceeds benefit organizations working to support the refugee community. The Levenson Room in the Portsmouth Public Library spent October with walls lined in photos of a little known New Hampshire community. The diverse population depicted in these prints is far from what is expected from a predominantly white state, but the smiles and bright eyes of children, mothers, doctors and brides are entirely familiar. Different Roots, Common Dreams perfectly captures those human moments any New Hampshire resident can relate to.

Becky Field takes a break from her photos to read to young friends, newly arrived in Concord from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Different Roots, Common Dreams is a culmination of years of work from photographer Becky Field. For the past two years Peter E. Randall Publishing and Field worked to create a book of her images supplemented by story essays from a few of the faces pictured. A New Hampshire artist working in close contact with immigrant families, Field attends weddings, prayer meetings and family dinners, using her camera as a passport to a unique perspective on a new population. “[Everyone is] very cooperative and helpful,” says Field, “many are exuberant at the idea of getting their photos taken.” The photos show this clearly; one shows a grinning boy leaping in front of the camera. The types of photos are familiar, from wedding shots to senior class portraits. The work isn’t detached or voyeuristic; Field is more welcome part of the community than objective documentarian.

The desire to photograph of life events is just one commonality between the immigrant and “receiving community” (Field’s term for New Hampshire natives). Field found one Hindu ceremony strikingly similar to a Christian communion. “These amazing parallels I see,” Field explains, “[the receiving community can] experience through my lens the depth of thinking that is so similar to ours.”

Priests lead a Buddhist service for the Vietnamese community in Peterborough.

The project was actually inspired by derogatory graffiti glimpsed on immigrant homes in Concord. “I thought it was a totally inappropriate way to treat new American neighbors,” explains Field. A beacon of relentless positivity, the artist believes the two communities avoid interaction due to a lack of understanding. She aims to highlight elements of immigrant life the receiving community can relate to. She makes it clear that her project has done as much or more for her than for her new neighbors. “I don’t think I was thinking [as deeply] before this project,” she explains, “[it’s] helping me understand my own culture.”

The Portsmouth Public Library was “thrilled” to discover Field wanted them to show her work. “It’s a perfect fit,” states Nicole Cloutier of Special Collections, “We are often called upon to assist new residents with aspects of getting settled and finding their way in the community.” Field’s honest, universal images work within the goal of helping the refugee community. Different Roots, Common Dreams, is an apt title for a project that allows us to understand without embarrassment, inspiring us to examine our own culture through the lens of another.

Crowing over Kitchens

I mentioned PhoPa Gallery's Inside/Out exhibit in February's post, and I want to make another nepotistic comment that PhoPa has consistently exhibited excellent work the entire time I've been aware of the establishment (also, there's brie at the opening). While the show is sadly over, I attended the artist's talk hosted by the gallery, and it turned out to be one of the most intellectually stimulating events I've attended in a while (excluding the Art History lectures I've been attending at USM, which deserve much more attention, and will receive it). The artists and moderator covered everything from use of photoshop to Maine's penchant for landscapes, but I found the subject of intimate interiors especially fascinating.

At the talk interiors were discussed as an exploration of the ordinary, lending value and contemplation to objects and spaces that often go unnoticed. This was most obvious in the work of Sarah Szwajkos, who photographed others' personal spaces she found compelling, using her photos to inspire curiosity and discussion as to what originally drew her to the space. They explore how we relate to spaces, subjectivity in interpretation calling attention to how spaces unite and divide people in the ways they react to them. Dishes nestle comfortably next to a clean sink, a cupboard cracked to imply another layer to the space, an invitation to look deeper. The ambiguity of these simple interiors captures something remarkably personal to each person who views it, and the artist loses some control over the meaning of their work.

Sarah Szwajkos, Apartment Kitchen with Clean Dishes, Moving Out, Personal Space Series Copyright Sarah Szwajkos
Sarah Szwajkos, Apartment Kitchen with Clean Dishes, Moving Out, Personal Space Series Copyright Sarah Szwajkos

I was struck by this notion of control looking at my roommate Sarah's collaged interiors. In the photographs at PhoPa we see how people inhabit spaces, indicators by which people establish identity and confirm it physically in their personal sphere. I see a lot of this in Perea-Kane's work. Birds in the Kitchen shows comfortable angles and confident lines of perspective of the dormers and counters, studded with individual elements in friendly pinks and yellows. This semi-orderly scene is set with a familiar hand, the sketchiness of the lines lending a sense of the personal. The kitchen is a glimpse into the privacy not just of the space, but of the close relationship of mind to hand.

Perea-Kane, Birds in the Kitchen, 2014
Perea-Kane, Birds in the Kitchen, 2014

The birds in question are cut roughly from black paper. They scatter in the space, lending a malevolence of the uncontrollable. The window looms in the background, but the artist gives no reason to believe the birds entered the room from there. The shapes are superimposed on the painting, born from the perspective of the viewer. They stand tribute to the subjectivity of interpretation inherent in the viewer. While Szwajkos seems to entice the viewer into any attempt at interpretation, Perea-Kane forces them to confront their own voyeurism before they examine the space depicted. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two Sarahs is not medium or surname, but rather that the photographer documents spaces not necessarily her own. 

There's a comfort as a viewer in performing the same function as the artist - we're not alone in our voyeurism when the object is born of it as well.  Perea-Kane depicts her own space being encroached by wild elements outside our control. She reminds one that, in the attempt to grasp at clues of identity and meaning in another's private space we're rarely nothing but another animal fluttering on the surface.

LACMA Wanderings: Time Crunch Edition

I'm sure it isn't hard to believe that one of the first things I wanted to do upon my return to LA was visit LACMA again. Luckily, a friend from college had come up from UC Riverside to the A+D Museum right next door. We agreed to meet for lunch at the food trucks that hang around that area.
As Far as I Could Get, John Divola, 1996 Image Courtesy of LACMA Website
I'm sure it isn't hard to believe I took way too long to get ready, and by the time I got to LACMA I had half an hour before I had to meet her for lunch, then go on to see a play in West LA. Instead of speeding through the entire museum, as I am wont to do, I limited myself to a single gallery of my choosing.
I'm sure it isn't hard to believe I was walking in the direction of the Modern Art wing when an exhibit at the rotating gallery caught my eye. The featured artist was John Divola, a professor at UCR with a focus in photography. Since my friend interned and now works at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, I decided this was fate and entered a gallery filled with different photographic series.
One was called As Far as I Could Get, where Divola set up his camera on a delay and ran away from the camera as far as he could before the shutter opened. The resulting photographs show the his back as a miniscule part of a pre-set frame that would have been beautiful photos without the person in them. The figure in the photo emphasize the presence of an artist, an artist not content to sit behind the scenes, yearning to push the boundaries of conventional art, his location, and his body.
Untitled, John Divola, 1995 Image courtesy of LACMA Website
Another series called Seven Songbirds and a Rabbit consisted of found photos from the Keystone-Mast collection at the Photography Museum in Riverside. Divola re-printed select photos with burned-out circles around animals in the pictures, ferreting out hidden beings from photos meant as observational tools. Just the few small animals Divola found and emphasized call to mind other hidden elements that could be present. How many other animals are tucked into photos of forests? Even in images taken from the land and hung sterile in a gallery the mystery of the natural world is inescapable. Divola points this out to us in a form we may understand.
Rabbit, John Divola, 1987 Image Courtesy of LACMA Website
Artificial Nature showed documentation photos from old film sets, a variety of goregeous landscapes. Some look stunningly real, some fake and cheap, others with clapperboards or props belying the illusion of nature. This series united the gallery in the message of inadequacies in "the human impulse to dominate nature by creating surrogates for it." As Far as I Could Get and Seven Songbirds and a Rabbit show the necessity of these surrogates, how the natural world will always subvert human attempts to capture it. The last series shows photographs of sculptures Divola created to look like elements of nature, but crudely and loosely.
The introduction to the exhibit (quoted in the earlier paragraph, written by LACMA staff) was thought-provoking and enlightening. Divola presented all different levels of nature imitation, contradictions between them creating a message of inadequacy, yet one vague and ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation. An older man with a group of friends was circling the space, explaining the photographic process to his friends. It evoked an atmosphere of scholarship and thought, and I found myself very pleased to stay in that gallery for the entirety of the time I had (except for the obligatory walk out through the Rodin sculpture garden).