I can hardly see a new photograph these days, whether in galleries, on Etsy, or in blogs, that doesn’t smack of a certain beauty of the ordinary—photos of arranged utensils on a table, a lonely chair against a wallpapered wall, succulents on a sill. These pictures reveal a zeitgeist that’s spurred on, I think, by an overwhelming popular return to notions of home and the handmade. It’s a genre of photography that, not unlike still-life painting, is hard to tweak into something altogether original, let alone dominant. Instead, there is a vast sea of similar shots of things, all pointing to a shared aesthetic that, while pretty, is also listless.
But there can be a lot to harness in a picture of something or some place that’s ordinary. If the poet Robert Frost taught us anything, it’s that sometimes the richest images are in our everyday experiences. Translating everyday-ness into something compelling, though, is always the artistic sticking point between what’s derivative and what’s inspired. In recent photography of this kind, few have bound the ordinary to the transcendent as well, and as consistently, as Dallas photographer Allison V. Smith. If put to it, I’d say that Smith’s work is the antecedent (at least regionally) to the plethora of vignette photographs out there.
In a quiet show called Maine at up at Barry Whistler Gallery, Smith has catalogued intimate spaces and scenes in and around her family’s vacation home, called Nonesuch Farm, in Rockport, Maine. Anyone familiar with Allison V. Smith’s previous work will be immediately struck by how different this new work is, on almost every level. Smith has kept her trademark square format, but it’s the mood that’s other in this work, one as far from her dry and dusty scenes of remote Texas as you could get. It’s a world that’s damp, foggy and full of fecundity, history and longing. It seems like a sea change for the artist.
The show is installed in two rooms, one showcasing scenes set outside; the other featuring a majority of interior vignettes. In the first gallery, the picture Silly Pond. November 2009. Rockport, Maine shows a tiny island spiked with bare birch trees, their images reflected in the water surrounding the island. A wooden dock leads out to the island, cutting up the center of the photo from the bottom of the frame. The picture feels cold and wet, but the island’s ground is a burnt sienna tone that lends warmth. The photo is the promo shot for the show and I’ve had a postcard of it lying around for few weeks. I thought, when I went to the gallery, that I had seen this picture already. But looking into the bare trees of the photograph in person revealed two hounds, nearly the same hue as the ground, standing side-by-side at the water’s edge. They look back across the dock to the photographer, calling out her anonymity, turning the lens on her. There is something about their look that isn’t the same as a person looking back when their portrait is taken. There is a sudden honesty in their faces that plays back the somber landscape, which seems to call for a soft, animal glance.
I grew up in New Hampshire, camping in Maine’s woods every summer. Smith is capturing a mood in these photos that is particular to New England. I know just what she is after—it is that palpable sense of the texture of the place. It is a texture that is best understood in comparison to a place like Texas. When held up next to each other one place seems flat, treeless and hot, the other hilly, verdant and damp. One place collects dust, the other mildew. Remembering Smith’s previous photos of Marfa and oil slick puddles somewhere out West makes the green of the forests in these new pictures that much greener, that much more alive. One picture in this new series, The Fog. November 2009. Rockport, Maine shows a small stream running alongside an old stone wall. The air is misty, the trees are bare and the ground is dead and brown. It feels like Irish artist Willie Doherty’s video piece, Ghost Story, in which an unseen traveler follows a road through woods and murk like we see here in Smith’s picture. One thinks of Robert Frost as well.
In the second gallery space, a room carved from the old Road Agent gallery, the works are lighter, less earthy. Most are of interior details: white shelves full of stacked china dishes near a ceiling with peeling paint; a white, chalky milk jar set atop a wooden mantle against a white wall; a steep, grey stairwell that bends in a curve from the top left corner to the bottom right. These simple shots, like their rich outdoor counterparts, are full of memory and a warm silence.
Smith is tapping into, with a sure authority and grace, an imagery-tradition in New England that is as real and undeniable as Texas is hot. These new pictures testify to a new kind of storytelling on the photographer’s part, one that is as fruitful and musky as an old tree, but as personal as shelves of gathered artifacts.
Allison V. Smith: Maine
Barry Whistler Gallery
October 16 – November 27