Down a Dark Passage
Points of View Photography Gallery
Through June 19
When you see the word "nun," what images immediately come to mind? For those with Catholic school upbringings, it will no doubt elicit a series of specific, personal memories. For others, myself included, with little or no personal history linking us to Catholicism, our images are received—filtered through a range of media and other image-bearing pipelines.
An iconographic history of nuns can be traced through popular culture, with such films as The Sound of Music (1965), The Singing Nun (1966), the popular TV comedy The Flying Nun (1967) and more recently the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act (1992). Harmony Korine's poetic Mr. Lonely (2008) features a running counternarrative involving nuns falling out of the sky, and the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence is a ponderous and affecting view of monastic life (albeit with monks, not nuns) that, through its sheer length (almost three hours), offers a taste of the relentless day-to-day experience of a lifetime given to ritual and prayer.
Louanne Watley's photographs of nuns in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana subvert the preconceptions and clichés. Down a Dark Passage is the title of Watley's series, the product of a three-year sojourn in which she visited various "monasteries, convents and motherhouses" in those four states. The artist has made an extensive set of images available for viewing online (www.unc.edu/~lkgarbo), while a sampling from this series is on view for a brief period at Points of View Photography Gallery in Raleigh. Her images are both tactile and atmospheric, sublime contemplations of earthbound embodiment. Watley's nuns project a particular matter-of-fact quality born of the paradox inherent in giving one's everyday life to the pursuit of spirit. Watley's focal points are precise articulations of faces, hands, feet. In every case these foci feel loaded with meaning: Close-ups of feet work as portraiture, revealing more than you could ever imagine about their owners in each gnarled toe, swollen joint or delicately puffy ankle. Feet are cast as metaphor in these works, jettisoning associations to walking, journeying, paths taken and abandoned, paths chosen and adhered to.
While the pieces in the exhibit retain some of their inherent power, there are issues with their physical presentation that limit the success of the show. Take, for example, the largest work on display (all the works in the show are untitled), a blow-up of the figure of a nun, blurred so as to be almost unrecognizable. The image has been printed onto thin Japanese paper, the piece cobbled loosely in a grid and held together, it would seem, by scotch tape, some of which is visible in a manner that feels anything but intentional. A narrow opening in which the component units of paper do not match up doesn't really make much visual sense. These seemingly casual details undermine the integrity of the work, and bring into question the other splotches, stains and water marks across its surface.
Similarly, a row of unframed foot pieces seems to have been mounted haphazardly on one wall, with one above and one below the row in placements that feel like an afterthought. It requires a kind of tenacious concentration on the part of the viewer to experience the value of these works in this configuration. There is a tension here between works that speak to a kind of sanctity and the apparent negligence of their display. This row of photographs begs for an editorial eye, a clarified hanging strategy and perhaps the sanctuary of some well-chosen frames.
A single print with the image of two bare legs, hung alone on one section of wall, is more successful. This work, with its distressed printing techniques, looks like it could have been made a century ago. The image holds a kind of visual intimacy, and indeed, at the turn of the century this might have been a forbidden image, revealing more of a woman's body than gentle society would have allowed. Here are glimmers of Watley's capacity for metaphoric and paradoxical resonance, coupling the idea of the nun with its attendant vows of chastity and abstinence of all kinds with a bald nakedness, as if to posit some new theory of erotic asceticism.
Another work that feels more fully realized is a single image of the feet of a standing figure nestled in a bed of grass. This is a larger-scale grid piece printed in sepia tones, with its component parts sewn together with sand-colored thread. The luminous central image is enshrined in dark tones and seems to glow. Every detail offers compositional relevance—the edges of a crisp white dress, the curves of the benevolent blades of grass, and the stability and grace in the stance of Watley's unseen subject.
The ambivalence of the show's presentation is probably most profoundly represented in a single smaller work, hung in a corner. It's a portrait, a face, half of which is brightly lit in sunlight—the other half in shadow. The face floats centrally in the picture plane, looking out from the photo as if looking out a window. She has a penetrating gaze—a look of great awareness. This nun knows she's being photographed. She offers her face to the photographer, to the lens, and ultimately to the viewer. She seems to understand that this offering has amplified meaning. By posing for Watley's camera, she understands that she represents the idea of a life lived in service of the sacred, and in this way her offering has a holy aspect, offering herself as an object of spiritual contemplation with a face that registers a startling strength and serenity.
A fan that blows through the small gallery space causes this piece to "breathe" away from the wall and back, suspended as it is on two magnetic pins, the two rolled strips of blue painter's tape apparently intended to train it to the wall coming into view with every breeze.