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With commencement around the corner, the best and brightest degree candidates from the famed Rhode Island School of Design revealed their portfolios and thesis projects at the annual RISD Fine Arts Portfolio Reviews in Providence this week. Once again, I shared the honors with Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director of the Griffin Museum of Photography, and her new Assistant Director, Mike Bodall. Paula and I have been following some of these students for several years now, marveling at the evolution of their visions. After the AIPAD show in NYC recently, you may think everything has been tried, but there is a fresh crop of original thinkers about to grace the photography world. Today, I’m featuring just a snippet of the captivating work we viewed by a few of this nation’s most promising new photographers.
Exploration of self and family is both fertile and rocky terrain, especially for emerging artists. In her series If We Are Not Yet Queer, Sakura Kelley (feature image) powerfully conveys the sense of being invisible and misunderstood by printing portraits on enormous sheets of non-absorptive paper and allowing gravity to obscure the image over the months it takes the piece to dry. Dripping and swirling textures on the print’s surface are sensually visceral and add dimensionality, highlighting the fluidity of the photographic print, the subject and the very idea of self.
In her series Once There Was There Wasn’t, Svetlana Bailey juxtaposes real and photographed scenes with memorabilia from separate times and places in her life – her ancestral home in Russia, childhood home in Germany, and schooling in Australia and the US – to build fanciful photographic composites that psychologically reconstruct her personal history. Bailey’s distortion of perspective and scale, her witty sense composition and her manipulation of color palette to reflect passing time all produce delightfully disorienting and mesmerizing images.
Matthew Williams’ nuanced portraits of his father and his sons in the series Everything Happens are autobiographical reflections of complex male relationships. Treading between a generation coming of age and another that is aging, Williams’ frank stares are returned with guarded fragility. His guileless, frontal style renders portraits with an approachability that invites viewers to fathom the unspoken hope and faith that rumbles beneath the surface.
Lauren Thomas likewise employs mundane places and things to hint at painful depths in her series Echoes: Growing Up With PTSD. By photographing close-ups of female body parts or undergarments, as well as non-specific ”physical triggering spaces” for women who were sexually abused during puberty, Thomas is able to evoke buried past experiences as part of a healing process. Using a gentle palette, soft lighting and bold composition, Thomas creates eerie, suggestive scenarios.
Jasphy Ziran Zheng’s contemplative imagery is filled with searching. Last year, she presented work about her hunt for answers regarding a beloved mentor’s suicide in an unyielding Chinese culture that left her with few clues and a long trail of letters and images that begat a captivating handmade book, The Unfinished Letter. Her current work, in which she returns to China for a protracted family vigil as her grandmother dies, is infused with the same sense of searching for life’s larger meaning. Without ever showing her grandmother, Zheng traces an elusive journey, replete with open trails in carefully considered compositions. Zheng crafts a series of alluring whispers into a quiet, powerful allegory, one that promises to become another absorbing book.
One of the highlights of our day was For Birds’ Sake, an inventive, engrossing book project by first year MFA student Maria Sturm, in conjunction with a photographer friend, Cemre Yesil. In it, they conduct what amounts to a sociologic study of a tiny Turkish subculture of men who trap and keep finches in a bizarre relationship of passion and possession. By keeping the birds shrouded in dark boxes, they provoke ever more desperately beautiful singing, the basis for competitions. Employing a symbolic style similar to classmates Thomas and Zheng, Sturm and Yesil derive deep impact by not showing the birds themselves. Instead, they allow the many contradictions of these convoluted relationships hit the viewer by crafting a creative narrative, from the hole-pocked book jacket covered in colorful cloth, like the caged birds, to the varied print, scale and page sizes, hiding and revealing the curious mysteries of these trapped birds and their keepers.
In his series Everything Has An End But A Sausage Has Two, Caleb Churchill’s conceptual photography addresses nature and the environment, identifying poignant and ironic circumstances of human intervention in urban and rural landscapes. Churchill’s images highlight disparate connections, utilizing a theme such as the weather or our National Parks, to emphasize the interrelationships borne by our societal choices.
In contrast, Sarah Meadow’s conceptual photographs function as stand-alone pieces in her project Sentimental Reasons. Shooting film photographs of vernacular images of nature, Meadows enlarges artifact such as grain and digitization to create singular, non-narrative “dream spaces” that dare to be pretty and feminine. Through a variety of further manipulations such as printing large or small, through gels and on plexiglass, Meadows conducts captivating perceptual experiments that explore the metaphysical world.
In her series In Suspension, Lisa Maione makes abstract photograms on a scanner utilizing lenses and reflective materials of varying sizes and shapes to explore the complexities of visual interpretation. By manipulating sculptural pieces and light, Maione creates spirited, intriguing photographs that investigate space and resolution, the most basic tenets of communication.
From abstraction to intensely emotional imagery, the emerging photographers at RISD are inventing new ways to see our world that have all the invigorating promise of fresh eyes. Stay tuned.
Feature Image: From the series If We Are Not Yet Queer (detail) by Sakura Kelley, 2016 MFA candidate (courtesy of the artist).