Three artists use words, not universal experiences, to explain photos' meanings


July 10, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

An artist's statement can be a dangerous thing, for the artist as well as the viewer. If it seems too self-serving, the viewer may be put off. If it lacks clarity, the viewer may come to the same conclusion about the art. At the least, it gets in the way of pure, unadulterated communication between viewer and art.

These reflections are prompted by the current exhibit of three artists' photographs at Knight Gomez (through July 27). In each case, the artist has provided a statement, and certain excerpts from these statements, taken together, offer a striking if perhaps skewed perspective on the show as a whole.

"A truthful picture never reveals its essence but instead exploits our eagerness for simplicity and conclusions," writes Dan Meyers. With that in mind, his photographs appear to be about what the viewer brings to them -- the paraphernalia of associations that we carry around in our minds, always ready to be loosed.

"Double Indemnity" consists of two photographs of a man, one taken in daylight and the other at night. The title inevitably brings to mind the book and the film, setting one to think of murder and film noir, thoughts only buttressed by the man's holding a device that looks like a camera in the nighttime photo. "Authentic Set" shows a man and a woman in front of a house in a pose that suggests Grant Wood's "American Gothic." The group of murky "Real Events" photos looks like family snapshots, and the figures in them are so indistinct that the family might be yours, mine or anybody's.

Jennifer Bishop writes, "I want a photograph to stand as a gentle reminder that nothing is only what it seems," so one looks at her photos hard for the implications buried within them. In "Arizona" an automobile set atop a pole, and in "Montana" what looks like a derelict drive-in movie screen, appear as icons or altars. Do these imply America's idolatry of the false gods of materialism and mindless entertainment? Perhaps.

"The impetus for my work is primarily my own internal conflict," writes Mary Kunaniec Skeen at one point in her very long statement. And so, it would seem, if we want to understand these tantalizing but arcane photographs we must look to the person behind them, who reveals herself too little here. In human experience and the human psyche there are universals, but in these works they don't come close enough to the surface to allow the viewer points of identity -- which may be why Skeen feels she must explain her work at such length. And one of the works, "Disentangling from Dreams," is so derivative of the Starn twins that it's impossible to accept it on its own terms.

Thus, taken as a whole, this exhibit can offer a trio of clues on where to look for the essence of a work of art -- to the past (be it cultural or personal history), to the work, to the person behind the work. But such a conclusion would scarcely be arrived at without the prompting of the artists' statements, which are not part of the art. Without them, one might see these works quite differently.

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