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Tension. It’s the first thing that grabbed me in “Flooded”, Susan Keiser’s solo photography show at the Griffin Museum’s atelier gallery at Stoneham Theatre in Stoneham, MA. Using only miniature antique dolls, some sparse accessories and water, Keiser draws the viewer into a world filled with contrasts in color, form and feeling. Her images work like magnets with opposing poles: one alluring, the other repellent. The bizarre mix is a sure sign that something exciting is going on, something worth investigating. Keiser’s tantalizing photographs will be on view through April 26, 2016.
So, what is going on? Usually it takes documentary photographs of catastrophic events to induce such conflicting urges to scrutinize and turn away. And yet Keiser succeeds in calling forth intense feelings without a single violent depiction. In fact, there is an overwhelming aura of stillness, of in-between moments: a doll in a chair on the verge of sinking, a close-up of a head just dipped below the water’s surface. There is a calm, unnerving tension, hinting at turmoil beneath the facade.
Keiser’s photographs are brimming with metaphors, starting with the aptly ambiguous title of the series, “Flooded”, suggesting “an overflowing of water or an outpouring of tears.” Water itself is a metaphor for life. Very often, it seems that photographers try to invoke dreams, emotions or memories by blurring their pictures in one way or another. But think about it, dreams are usually so hyper-realistic that they profoundly thrill or terrify us. Keiser has managed to hit that note so clearly that it rings, using selective focus and distressed models to create images that resonate with a strangeness that feels real.
The beauty of “Flooded” is in its layers, conferring depth and dimensionality both visually and expressively. Keiser’s narrative compositions tend to be off-kilter, her close-ups, tight and intimate. The dolls are rigid, their “skin” hard and damaged, while the water that surrounds and envelopes them is soft with tranquil motion. It confers a sort of life to the motionless figures, who are pale with faded and flaking colors against its darkness. Keiser further conveys disorientation by excluding horizon lines. Sometimes, she even cocoons a figure’s head in a soaked, translucent flower petal. Is it a death shroud, a veined, life-giving placenta? It feels suffocating and yet every doll remains detached, dignified, as if resigned to fate. Keiser’s muted images trigger an eruption of confused feelings, adding to the surface tension.
Although she works exclusively with model figures, Keiser’s photographs never appear precious or concocted. This is a reflection of her intuitive approach and openness to serendipity. What results is a capricious blend of motion and stillness, lightness and depth, dream and reality. Keiser’s images are lovely without being pretty and I have to admit that it took me some prolonged gazing for their riches to reveal themselves. If you delight at the idea of engaging with art to expand and see things differently, Keiser’s stirring work is irresistible.
For directions and more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.griffinmuseum.org/blog/the-griffin-museum-at-the-stoneham-theatre/
To learn more about Susan Keiser’s work, go to: http://www.susankeiserphotography.com/
Feature image: “Flooded #8” (detail) by Susan Keiser (courtesy of the artist and 555 Gallery, Boston).