It’s always the most perfect moment that we remember. Our brains perform a sort of selective amnesia on our understanding of personal narrative and pick out the most noteworthy scenes to string together into a semblance of story. Combined with our inundation by the cinematic and the collective eschewal of that perceived as bland and ordinary, everyone wants it to be like in the movies, and no one wants to live in the interstitial scenes.
Holly Andres’ new exhibition at Charles A. Hartman thrives on setting up a narrative structure for the viewer to fill in. Her most recent body of work, The Fallen Fawn, plays out in nineteen photographs depicting a number of interconnecting scenes. Depending on how you read them, and in which order, the story may differ. The artist marks the narrative with three subtitles (River Road, Belmont House, and Elk Rock Island) that read as both settings and stand-ins for the tale’s themes. Both literal discovery and a more personal discovery/coming-of-age are at the core of the plot, but the images (along with the rest of Andres’ work) point to a more in-depth inquiry on the nature of memory and how we use images to form, obstruct and manipulate our personal histories.
Given the obvious staging of Andres’ photographs, the use of studio lights and carefully constructed scenes draw comparisons to other artists working within the cinematic mode. The photographs of Gregory Crewdson and Julia Fullerton-Batten (to name only a couple) share a similar visual style with Andres’ tableaus. However, where the former often work in thematic groupings, Andres’ leans heavily on the creation of a visual narrative. Each scene is immaculately staged, and reads as either a posed genre scene or a fictional representation ripped from a motion picture. However, every scene adds to the overarching drama and exists in a surreal limbo (as with works by Crewdson) without their narrative counterparts.
For the most part, Andres’ series are derived from childhood memories, often those shared with her large family. Half-remembered, they exist as catalysts for a new interpretation, construction and reexamination of how she and her siblings thought about the world in the past and how that now informs their day-to-day. In The Fallen Fawn, the action hinges on the discovery of a woman’s suitcase by two of Andres’ sisters. As they collectively recall, the contents were not turned over to an adult, but instead were used as props and entry points into this unknown woman’s life. Reenacted and reimagined by actors for the photographs, Andres infuses a seemingly simple story with an air of mystery and uncertainty.
It is this uncertainty in the photographs that is most relevant to a discussion of memory and the cinematic. As pop cultural beings, we are continually influenced in all aspects of our life by media and images. Our memories inevitably deal in imagery and the parsing of visual stimuli, the most prevalent form of information in our everyday. We string together images and short clips of memory to make sense of an increasingly overwhelming visual world. What we think of as the real world is in fact more a construction of social and visual cues and the effects they have on our human interactions with physical and virtual space. We are living within the hyperreal in an age of layered meaning and constantly shifting definitions of the world.
At this point Keanu Reeves utters, “Whoa,” and we all laugh about the pop culture reference. But it is precisely the fact that we know this instance from a movie released almost two decades ago better than we recognize a familiar face at a party that tells us our minds are changing and prioritizing in a way not wholly set within the physical realm. Holly Andres’ work treads the line between memory and manufacture. Her tableaus, though heightened in intensity by light and staging, are for all accounts quite ordinary in setting. However, our brain knows that the real world doesn’t look like that no matter how much we want it to. Certain tricks behind the lens invite a conversation about the surreal, the hyperreal, and chasing the magic hour (when for a split second the real world looks like just another day in Hollywood).
So why not make movies? Why not continue the charade in a full blown absorption extravaganza (Michael Fried of the 60s would be all for this)? “My work is very much in dialogue with cinema,” noted Andres in a recent interview, “and even when I’m asked to shoot an editorial portrait, I try to depict my subjects as though they are protagonists within a larger narrative.” The opportunity for a more immersive world to push along this narrative is enticing. However, Andres’ asserts that she much prefers ”the potential of freezing a narrative as a single frame.” Much as in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, the photographic image freezes the moment and invites introspection and contemplation. The photograph allows a more singular meditation on the part of the viewer and, in tandem with the broken storyline of Andres’ series, places the power in the beholder. The audience can unpack each of Andres’ images fully before moving on to the next, much like the slow unrolling of a painted scroll.
By asking us to both view images of memory and commit them to our own, Andres is passing along her stories to us and adding just the right amount of intrigue to the often collective nonchalance of the photo-viewing public. By fusing the personal with the cinematic, series like The Fallen Fawn portray a more accurate representation of our view of reality and the constant confusion between the thoughts in our head and the images on the screen.
Holly Andres: The Fallen Fawn is at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art until May 28, 2016. Open Thurs. – Sat., 11-5PM. 134 NW 8th Ave. Portland, OR.