She uses mirrors to reflect a new kind of truth

Catching Up With ... Connie Imboden

Photographer's art distorts human body to try to achieve deeper revelations

November 02, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Photographer Connie Imboden's Hampden studio looks like a cross between a building supply shed and an amusement park fun house that's not quite up to code.

Industrial-strength lights and electrical cords run all over the place, yards of black cloth hang from clamps on movable stands, and a huge distorting mirror -- its silver backing rubbed off so that it resembles a foggy windshield on a rainy night -- stands nearby.

The walls are cinderblock, the floors are concrete and the only comfortable furniture is a small, cushioned chair wedged between some backdrops and the mirror, which is sandwiched between two wooden benches. There are also shards of broken mirror with mean-looking jagged edges everywhere. But not to worry, they're Plexiglas and too dull to cut.

Which is sort of a relief when you consider what happens in here: Soft, vulnerable naked bodies move around in near darkness. Whatever slicing that goes on is done by Imboden herself -- quite deliberately -- in the viewfinder of her camera.

The Baltimore artist is preparing new work to be exhibited in her one-woman show at Gomez Gallery that opens Nov. 15. (Of the approximately 30 pieces in the show, 22 will have been made here.) The works present Imboden's radical restructuring of the human body in stark, black-and-white images of fractured torsos, distorted limbs and weirdly translucent skin tones that make many of the photographs look like futuristic X-rays of the soul.

In her most recent pictures, Imboden uses the partially silver mirror and reflective shards as she once used water to break up and reassemble them in new and, to some people, unnerving ways.

"I don't really see them as violent, I don't think they've been cut up in a way that implies violence or death," Imboden said. "I see them as disturbing in that we're looking at stuff that makes us uncomfortable. But that's good, that's one of the purposes of art -- to shake us up a little bit, to push the boundaries."

For Imboden, pushing the boundaries has always been a way of clarifying her vision. "It gets us to see things in a new way. It gets us out of our ruts of ordinary seeing and, hopefully, gets us looking at things in a new way," she said.

"For the artist it's the process of making the art, and for the viewer it's the act of looking at the work, of looking at complex emotions expressed visually. At times that can confront us with issues that we need to look at."

Reformulating the body

Imboden's images have the shocking familiarity of dreams, hallucinations, visions or nightmares. Some of her figures seem to combine both male and female attributes; others seem eerily transparent, as if one were looking straight through the surface layers of skin and flesh to the psychological and spiritual selves that inhabit the body.

For centuries, artists have used the nude form to express philosophical ideals and earthly pleasures. But Imboden's black-and-white photographs depart sharply from classical depictions of the body. In her effort to get at the psychological and spiritual truths of human existence, she uses the reflections and distortions of her mirrors to literally reformulate the basic architecture of the body -- what critic Arthur Ollman called her "rewriting the instruction manual of creation."

"What I'm doing is making new forms, re-forming the body into a new being," Imboden said. "I did that with water as well. Now I'm working with the parts of the body that are reflected in the mirror and lining them up with parts of the real body [in front of the mirror], so that I'm combining reflected and real to create a new being or form."

Imboden usually works with at least two models. One is always positioned behind the half-silvered mirror, the other in front. The resulting image therefore records three separate picture planes: that of each model, plus the reflected image of the model in front of the mirror.

During a photo shoot, which usually lasts a couple of hours, Imboden exposes anywhere from 10 to 30 rolls of film. But only a tiny fraction of her images are ever exhibited, after months or sometimes years of painstaking editing rooted in deep introspection.

Time reveals message

"Connie is a very interesting artist because she uses her medium as an expression of her personal development," said Walter Gomez, who gave Imboden her first commercial gallery exhibition in 1988.

"It's not always a conscious thing for her," he said. "She goes into her shoots with a really open mind and trust in her own intuitive powers. She also edits her work better than anybody I know. What that means is that time gradually reveals the work's message to her, so that her work has a real cathartic feel for her -- and also, I think, for viewers looking at it, who see their own spiritual journey reflected in hers."

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