Local retrospective explores photography's illusionistic nature


October 10, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Takoma Park resident Gillian Brown's work is about photography and memory and the illusionistic aspects of both. If she has nothing particularly original to say, she has found an original way to articulate familiar concepts, and that may well be a comment on the illusory nature of originality itself. If as Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun, then the only possibility is a new way of dealing with the old.

Her current show, "Gillian Brown: Installation and Photographs" (through Oct. 26) at the Gormley Gallery of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, is a small retrospective, with 23 works going back to 1976. Earlier works such as "Fall Comes to Southern California" show that she has always been interested in the illusionism of the camera, up to and including the photograph-based installations which have become her trademark in recent years. The show includes one of the installations and photos of several more.

Brown's method begins with an old black-and-white photograph a family snapshot, whether of her own or someone else's family makes no difference. The subject is familiar to us all -- two children by the steps with Christmas stockings hanging over the stair rail; a man shaving in the bathroom -- so that it's easy for the viewer to identify with what's going on.

Brown then creates an installation that replicates the setting of the photograph and reproduces the photograph in black and white paint across the furniture of the installation so that if the viewer stands in just the right place (marked by an X on the floor) everything falls into place and the reproduced "photo" lines up with the installation, creating the illusion that the people are in the newly created space just as they were in the photograph. If one moves a little in any direction from the X, however, the whole illusion falls apart.

It's hardly necessary to explain what these are about. The camera gives us a particular moment in the past that can only be remembered, not truly re-created; in other words, you can't go home again. And the camera lies about that past anyway, for if you think back the smiling faces only represent an instant, not the truth of the lives that were going on; maybe even the instant was faked -- we have all smiled for the camera when we didn't feel like it.

To reiterate the truisms these works illustrate is to do them an injustice, for the works themselves are far more fresh and fun than the concepts behind them. The new installation at Notre Dame, however, is not one of Brown's best, so perhaps she's coming to the end of this series.

A recent and different work is "Blackboard," in which 20 silver prints are put together to resemble a blackboard with a montage of chalked-on lessons (math, English, etc.), images of children, games, toys, the things that swim around in our minds when we remember childhood. This is a more straightforward, more poignant essay about memory than the installation pieces, so maybe it represents a new departure.

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