The camera is a curious instrument. Its purposes run from mundane to exotic and include a sweeping range between, but the odd thing is that the operator of the instrument is reflected whatever the purpose may be. By neatness or carelessness of composition, by selection of subject, by some slight suggestion of attitude toward what is going on — all these things say something about the cameraperson as well as the ostensible subject.
When the subject is the cameraperson herself, as is the case in Rituals and Enactments at Iris BookCafé, we learn all sorts of wonderful things about Anne Arden McDonald, although she never actually shows us her face. We learn first, perhaps, that she is inventive, poetic in outlook and deeply sad, and also that she uses her camera as though it is some sort of extension of her thought process. Everything is in black and white because, she has said, that “is one step removed from our everyday experience.”
Everyday experience is not the subject here. We are in a world she calls “part ritual, part dance and part day dream,” an escapist enchantment constructed, one can only think, to keep unhappiness at bay. The works on view date from 1987 to 1995 and come from a group composed during the years when the photographer herself was between 15 and 30. At that time the British-born, Atlanta-bred artist, like most of us at that age, was trying to understand who she was and where she belonged.
We see her in the scabby interiors of abandoned buildings, in a pine forest, in grassy fields. She wears, if anything, a gauzy drape or simple white shift and might be dancing.
The photographs, imagined happenings transfigured into faux memories, make up perhaps the most beautiful exhibition to appear yet on the walls of Iris BookCafé, where curator William Messer presents a steady stream of interesting shows.
A fascination with texture is recurrent in McDonald’s work. Irregularities in poured concrete walls become an aesthetic device in more than one of these photographs. Wallpaper peels from the ceiling, paint has fallen away. Windows often stand open, suggesting escape? Vulnerability? She herself is sometimes hard to find. In what could be a study of the surface of a ravaged wall, the artist is the ghostly figure standing in a niche. Occasional shafts of sunlight are put to striking use but provide compositional interest rather than true illumination. Interiors are arched and recessed and clearly unused, except for the insubstantial figure of the photographer who has chosen these spaces for self-portraits.
In one work she sits naked in a ring of fire; in another the fire is a half circle of candles and she clutches — What? Something precious? — to her breast. She calls her self-portraits “visual metaphors for struggles we face every day” and allows the viewer to make whatever personal connection might be relevant. In one of the loveliest of these beautiful photographs she seems to be an aerialist, lightly tethered by upward ascending ropes, only just landed in this high-ceilinged setting where no wall is without a damaged surface.
Because most are horizontal format, the occasional vertical calls attention to itself. In one of the verticals she appears to be suspended, floating, in an abandoned green house; the viewer, like the camera, is beside an open door looking in. She is glad to adjust proportions to subject matter; in one in which her white figure lies in what might be an open grave the width of the horizontal photograph stretches to suggest the shape of a cemetery lot.
The artist identifies these works only by a number, the year and the place where they were taken. The locations suggest a life of considerable travel, including California, Wyoming, Hungary, Utah, Czech Republic, New York, Finland, Massachusetts and — for a haunting interior in which the light seems measured out by cupfuls — Cincinnati.
McDonald has shown widely here and abroad and is represented in major museum collections. She lives now in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches at the Parsons School of Design. If these photographs, apparently from a completed body of work, lead you to wonder what she is doing now you can find out at www.anneardenmcdonald.com, but meanwhile the actual works at Iris reward repeated visits.
RITUALS AND ENACTMENTS is on view at Iris BookCafé through Feb. 22. For hours, see irisbookcafe.com.