Monday, May 28, 2007

Jennifer Crane: Becoming

Jennifer Crane
PAVED Arts, Saskatoon
May 25 - June 23, 2007

Entering the space at PAVED Arts, you might have to go through a white lattice archway. You wouldn’t be wrong to assume this space is about marking a transition, but it’s far more complicated than that--this is a long one, folks, so please bear with me. There is room, with this show, to discuss photographic philosophy as it relates to the idea of the document, and what makes art photography different, by any measure, from commercial or documentary photography. But there are more pressing issues at work here, which hover unresolved.

To the left of the entrance are 10 photographs, and across from them are 5 larger variations. The smaller works depict girls--16 or 17 years old--in casual clothing. They are smiling, posing slightly and awkwardly, and standing in front of lockers. “SHAINA,” we are told, is the name of one of them, and "SARAH" is another; we are told the names of the others as well, although the labels--in all capital letters and solid black font, organized outside of the images--seem to resemble names less than they do catalogue labels or model numbers. The photographs themselves are cropped tight to the girls heads, giving them only a small amount of visual breathing space in front of the institutionality of their lockers--their calves and feet are severed by the border of the picture. Next to these is a pair of video monitors which show the same girls in a series of camera-dress sequences, also in front of the lockers.

The larger photographs show the same girls in prom dresses. These images are even more uncanny than their smaller, casual counterparts, as the girls possess the immediate outward appearance of being dressed up; upon closer inspection, however, we see that they are all wearing the same makeup and hair as in their pseudo-candid portraits. One girl grimaces with her tongue sticking out. Therefore they have put on the clothing but still cannot manage to embody the commercial elegance they seem to be after. In these larger versions, their heads are also given more room and nothing of theirs is severed by the borders of the image, although they remain flanked by the institutional structure of the lockers.

This exhibition itself has an institutional layout typical of gallery spaces and the exhibitionary order, and of the lockers the girls inhabit--images are arranged according to a grid system of rows and columns. There are a couple of group photographs to the sides of the other images (and another in front of the aforementioned lattice gate), each of which depicts a set of three of the girls posing together. In these cases, the girls are posed in a classroom, in front of a board containing posters, drawings, letters, etc., all arranged more according to size and shape than any obvious external order.

Looking at the images in the classroom scenes, we realize that the girls pictured understand visual media less hierarchically than an artist or gallerist might, arranging images and data with more emphasis on where that data fits, rather than establishing a system of regulation to which the images and their placement conform. This raised, for me, issues of control in a photographer-subject hierarchy; while the girls may have been able to "choose" their clothing (from a limited array of available dresses) and poses, they presumably did not choose their location (as it is uniform). Furthermore, the photographer retains control of the camera position, framing/composition and fundamentally the editing of a sequence of shots down to a single proof, thereby reclaiming control over her subjects. Finally, they are displayed the way the photographer, in conjunction with exhibitionary norms, chooses to display them.

Viewers may therefore be tempted to read the artist’s process as the imposition of conformity upon something innately organic, or that an otherwise gradual process--the preparation for the “coming out” that is graduation, normally lengthy--has been rushed for the sake of efficiency. Reading the exhibition text we realize that the girls pictured are not graduating until next year, and are therefore willing participants in this process of structured visual precociousness--in what I can only assume are ways they don’t or can’t fully understand yet.

In addition to the layout, I couldn’t help but notice that these images depict a fairly uniform demographic--white, thin girls who are roughly of the age of consent. Furthermore, gleaning from the exhibition text that these girls attend Holy Cross High School, one wonders about the decision to exhibit this work in Riversdale. Walking through the space created by the installation, I couldn’t help but be aware that it is incongruous with the majority of institutional educational experience in its surrounding urban environs. This is, after all, an area of Saskatoon where under a third of the residents are listed as having completed high school--a number which is, incidentally, decreasing--and where, for some, institutional education is synonymous with the catastrophic and genocidal Residential School system.

Even though prom culture may be "enduring," it is by no means universal.

The walls not populated with photographs of the young women carry a set of 4 photographs of fallen dresses. The dresses appear to be of the type used in the other photographs, although I don’t recall noticing any direct correlation between them. The fallen dresses are shot from above, and most radiate around their central apertures. Understanding the sexual nature of prom culture and the form of coming-of-age that is perhaps the most anxiety-laden for adolescents, I cannot help but see the more flesh-coloured of these dresses as hymenal orifices; the others are flower-like, although even they are subsequently unable to avert the sexual implications of that metaphor. Furthermore, because the dresses are earthbound and uninhabited, they take on the character of discarded shells. While this may also reference transition, it also implies nudity and vulnerability. The images themselves appear to have been shot on a grey (concrete?) background and with a flash only slightly to the side of the camera--the effect this produces is the low contrast and washing out that resembles the snapshot. These images, like their portraiture counterparts, are awkward; lacking the chiaroscuro or the asymmetry that would secure their place as formally beautiful art photography, they have a grittiness which only serves to underscore the clandestine and unsettling nature of their context and content.

In the end, I found this exhibition to be confusing, disturbing, and unresolved. In attending Jennifer Crane’s artist talk, it became clear that others had also been knocked off-balance by the work presented. This is especially troubling in that the artist seems to possess a sincere concern and an investment in the nature of prom culture and working with young women. However, while this is apparent in her personality, it is muddied in the artwork. Some of it may stem from the fact that there seems to be a lack of a coherent thesis or articulated reason for making the work, while another factor may be the litany of political hotbuttons that are being bumped into (such as underaged sex; racial, financial and stylistic inequities; institutionality and control, etc.). As such, we are left with some fairly disturbing images, some semi-opaque processes, and some assumptions about the rhetoric of transition and development which, when examined, suggest processes of institutionalization, alienation and violation.

--Lee Henderson


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