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Moving Pictures

Exhibition Exploring Transforming Images Also Recasts Their Emotive Potential

Jeffrey Kent's "Pain?"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/25/2009

She stares at him, and the silence between them makes their closeness feel like a chasm. She looks inscrutable in her hat, coat, and bag held at her waist in both hands. What he's thinking is even more fugitive, as the framing obscures his face. Tentatively, she reaches her right hand out toward his face, extends her fingers, and withdraws the hand. A very short time later, she again extends the hand, this time in a partial fist, and casually moves her thumb up and down as if wrestling an imaginary opponent, before withdrawing the hand again. Nothing else in the image moves. Is he refusing a reconciliatory handshake? Is he statuary? It's never quite clear, and during the 2.5 minute loop of this animation from local artist Karen Yasinsky, "Oh Juliette" becomes an impermeable portal into an extremely personal moment, dissected by the repetitive focus on such an otherwise innocuous act.

Better visual memories than this one may recognize the woman in "Oh Juliette" as illustrated versions of Dita Parlo, an actress in Jean Vigo's absolutely flawless 1934 silent romance, L'Atalante, but it took the accompanying booklet to Hand to Frame/ Surface to Lens to clue this pair of eyes into the source for Yasinsky's three animations here. That's not a knock on curator Symmes Gardner's curatorial vision. The Director of the Center for Arts, Design, and Visual Culture at UMBC organized this exhibition around the idea of visual transformations between media, the way images and the responses to them change when moving from cinema to animation (Yasinsky), serial narrative to individual images (painter Jeffrey Kent), single images from multiple sources (Hadieh Shafie), and still drawings to moving images (Nino Leselidze). It's an interesting process-oriented theme, but a more interesting one is the emotional territory these works share given the curatorial framework.

Specifically, variations on the personal and domestic run through the works, an idea most readily suggested by Nino Leselidze's work. The subject matter in her eight drawings and single animation --especially the drawings--feels resoundingly personal. "Subdued by Water" reads like a response to hydrophobia, while "Sleeping on the Top of a Tree"--a busy ink on paper rendering of a figure casually reclined in a forest-like setting--conveys a feeling of finding safe comfort in an otherwise precarious place.

Leselidze's vocabulary gives her work its personal singularity. Her visual style here is a mix of imaginative whimsy flirting with the familiarly observable world, resulting in imagery that has one foot in children's book illustration and another in otherworldly adult fears. These forces combine to yield a parallel universe, such as the one depicted in "Destiny." Here, Leselidze renders a couple--presumably, as the two heads, one male, the other female, either emerge from two bodies standing very close together or one torso with four arms--with long, anteater-like noses who appear to live in a florid wilderness. A bed rests in a flower to the right, and a long-beaked bird enters the frame from the left carrying a basket. The scene feels like a family's creation myth from some little-known indigenous culture.

A more familiar culture appears in Shafie's five photo collages. The Iranian-born artist's previously exhibited works with paper take an overabundance of materials--specifically, rolls and rolls and rolls of colored paper--and turn them into painstakingly realized geometric abstracts. Here, she works a similar alchemy with photographic images, creating brightly colored scenes from some family's ritual or celebration. A pair of women sit on a couch in one image; a young woman is made up in some kind of ceremonial makeup and dress in another. In all, out of focus elements bleed into sharply focused items, giving these composite snapshots the feeling of Chuck Close paintings where each individual element is a moving part.

Yasinsky freezes motion and emotion in her animations, and the resultant power of such a subtle process feels monumental. In each of her three animations, she appears to take a single frame from L'Atalante and shear of it every moving part save one or two. In "Jean and Juliette," he carries her in her arms, as if after a wedding ceremony, and her fingers caress his cheek. In "Jules and Juliette," he leans over her, tattooed and shirtless, as she reclines and extends a finger toward him. These are ephemeral candid moments that barely register in the course of a motion picture, but freezing such fleeting postures and expressions drains them of their otherwise mundane life--a smile becomes something else when it doesn't change over time. As a result, the interpersonal weight of the simplest of gestures--extending a hand, raising a finger--becomes exponentially amplified in these intimate scenes.

A different amplification happens in Kent's four canvases. Kent fearlessly deconstructs masculinity, looking for cracks and fissures in its confident swagger, and his recurring use of comic-book imagery deftly accomplishes this feat. He titles three canvasses here with questions not typically associated with superheroes--"Disabled?," "Pain?," and "Vulnerable?"--that recast the comic-book renderings of these figures. In "Pain?," Batman and Robin appear familiarly masked--costumes that hide their true identities, yes, but which also, in the vocabulary of comics, eliminate any emotional signifiers of facial expression. Batman is always this square-jawed, grimacing visage, but Kent's addition of dialog bubbles featuring backward text--in which Batman wonders why he's being spurned by Superman--makes this otherwise stoic expression feel as damaged and pensive as a hurt child. It's a subversive twist--not depicting superheroes with such ordinary thoughts, but the mere act of catching men in these moments feels like a window to a world rarely captured in pop culture.

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