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Telling stories

Photography show “Spinning Yarns” at the University of St. Francis

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


It isn't often that independently curated exhibitions travel through Fort Wayne since the Fort Wayne Museum of Art shifted its focus onto its permanent collection. "Spinning Yarns," co-curated by Anne Leighton Massoni and Libby Rowe, has been at the University of Saint Francis' Lupke Galleries on its North Campus since July, and will be showing through September 30.

Etymologically based on the idiom "spin a yarn," or to tell an unbelievable story, Massoni and Rowe's exhibition is more about the process in which photography tells a story than any particular narrative expressed in the images themselves. This courageously established core concept becomes somewhat lost from time to time, but thankfully the work is of such quality that the viewer barely has the time to notice anything between being absorbed into each image. The artists involved all accommodate for the succinct impact they are allowed to make within the confines of the space, and focus more on a petite sublime moment rather than the over-the-top, "big and many" style which is ever-present in contemporary photography. As the viewer follows these strands, the evidence of these pieces as telling their own stories becomes more and more obvious. With images chosen specifically, and placed thoughtfully, the tempo of the exhibition is perfectly synched to give rests and climaxes.

Like any work of art however, the stories told in "Spinning Yarns" can never actually describe themselves any more than slowly utter a syllable or word, waiting for the viewer to piece them together for themselves. This thus makes the author or speaker an accomplice in the story instead of the didactic orator. Viewers must grapple with how these images are intending to take them, and whether which of the thousand words each image may be saying from time to time. Ultimately, "Spinning Yarns" is as much about the nature of photography as it is, than about the stories it tells, including the dynamics of how an image lies. As the seminal artist Laurie Simmons said about photography in "The Present Perfect with Art21," "It made me question, what kind of lies can I tell? Not what kind of truths can I tell…". Making us question the lies and the facts in these perfect representations of reality, "Spinning Yarns" presents images as being both depictions and devil's advocates.

The curatorial genius involved in this exhibition revolves around the use of the photographic images as the conveyer of a story in the form of a story instead of written words or a spoken voice. The photographic image stands as an incredibly economical form in which to depict an opened story that the viewer then animates upon interaction. This natural process, being brought out into the forefront through the exhibition "Spinning Yarns," is actually remarkable and very generous for a traveling university exhibition.

And now to introduce the writers and their words/characters. "Spinning Yarns" included an extensive international list of photographers, all with diverse and impressive credentials. Some of the stand out images belonged to Ashley Feagin, Erin V. Sotak, Grace Westin, and Muireann Brady. Muireann Brady is an Irish photographer, who is relatively "new" to the art world having graduated with her BA in photography in 2005. Her Untitled "Rituals Interrupted" pieces are gorgeous examples of conceptual photography with tiled images of domestic scenes and notated post-its of various colors on a scaled white wall, composed in perfect grids. These pieces are documentary pieces of a time when she stayed with her parents after having moved away. The post it notes are actual images of the notes which her parents left her, being a key form of communication in their re-fashioned relationship.

Grace Westin's work, in a change of pace, is a throwback to the diorama and to vignetted still-life of the past. The vintage feel of the Fuji Crystal Archive C-Prints both identifies them as anachronisms and sets them apart as contemporary constructions like a period piece of blockbuster cinema. Through the vignette, Westin keeps control of everything within the studio, and this keyed in tension accentuates the wit of her pieces. Westin's work produces a "laugh as not to cry" feeling with searing colors and the whimsical nature of the miniature cut out forms in the face of psychologically disruptive images.

Erin V. Sotak, in a similar way to Westin, is working with highly constructed and produced photographic images, but incorporates the human figure prominently through the inclusion of performance within her artistic practice. Sotak describes her process as the narration of a short story "symbolic colors, iconic objects, cultural references and historical allusions." Sotak also importantly states that her works exist as photographs. This act of documentation, which has become a primary role for the photographic act since the widespread acceptance of performance and installation in the 1970's, is used in a very specific way in the context of Sotak's work. There are many documentary photographers, capturing the genuine moments which pass us all by in our day, but the designed documentation of an image for a performance is much more complex. These documentary forms of photography in performance are both the artifact and the sacramental channel for the exegesis of the artifact. Because of these images, Sotak's work can be more concretely connected to art historical references and criticism.

Finally, Ashley Feagin, a sociologist with a camera, brings one of the strongest and most blunt practices represented in "Spinning Yarns". Feagin's work is a series entitled "Clean" which visually is dominated by the color white, yet tormented with the complexities of the world, muddling up the perfection of the main character. These descriptions of a being who is clearly striving for a perfection are taking part in an archaic human story, one traveling back to Babel, yet does so in a very contemporary and stringently tight form. Instead of wide spread, panoramic, epic images of the depths of human psychology, Feagin shows us thee images that aren't composed much more than a editorial snapshot, yet continuously unfold themselves into that Humanistic perfection mythos which we are carry within us.

"Spinning Yarns: Photographic Storytelling"
July 9-September 30
University of Saint Francis North Campus
Lupke Galleries

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