Side by Side: An Exhibition of New Work by Isabel Chicquor
Through This Lens
Through Feb. 13
The first image is in tight focus and has a palette of subtle hues. The second is in grainy black- and-white with a range of soft gray tones.
In the first, we see the upper torso of a pale terra-cotta statue that rises from behind the staccato repetition of a white wooden fence. The head, apparently that of a goddess, faces outward, impassively scanning the horizon. She is framed by the elegant arc of a rusting rooftop against a luminous depth of sky. In the second image, we see the figure of a man in silhouette from the back, walking along a pier. He looks out across the water toward some man-made structures in the middle distance and further out to a range of mountains outstretched along the coast.
The images have been printed side by side on one sheet of paper and are presented as a single work. Separately, the two images have plenty to say, but together they forge new associative and interdependent meanings. They stake out shared symbolic territory and set up felicitous dichotomies of male and female, black-and-white and color, close-up and long shot, front and back, statuary and living figure. Both figures—one iconic, one human—represent a very active kind of seeing.
This diptych is one of 15 similarly constructed photographic prints by Isabel Chicquor at Through This Lens Gallery in Durham. Although untitled, each work is identified by Roman numerals and parenthetical text constructions—two nonspecific lowercase nouns separated by a backslash. Chicquor's nontitles serve as austere conceptual frames that allow maximum access to the visual richness of the conjoined worlds of her show, Side by Side. The imagery in these works is clearly culled from the artist's travels all over the globe, but site-specific, detailed labeling would allow the work to become mired in tour-guide minutiae. By suppressing geographic and cultural references, the pairings coalesce in an open-ended poetics of form and confluence.
The above-described piece is titled "Untitled Diptych #XVI (roof/ pier)." The work conjures flashbacks to Chris Marker's 1962 La Jetée, a film composed almost exclusively of still images. Marker's dystopian narrative circulates around a scene that unfolds along a pier (the "jetée" of the title), and Chicquor's black-and-white pier image comes across as a lost still from the film. Chicquor's diptychs are inherently cinematic, built upon the relational shift between juxtaposed images. A sense of jet lag is almost achieved, as one might feel watching La Jetée or Sans Soleil, another Marker film, and one can almost hear questions raised in the voice of Marker's unseen narrator: Can a poem consist of only two words? Can a film contain only two images? Photography sustains the tension between a captured present and an ever-receding past. It is perhaps the theme of memory as a visual construction that most fervently aligns Chicquor's stills with Marker's films.
Chicquor's is a world of planes, archways and vectors. Aside from the dueling candles and liturgical paintings that grace both images of "Untitled Diptych #III (nun/ bird)," each composition contains virtually identical, flat architectural planes that take up roughly one-third of the pictorial space. The worlds that frame the man and woman with cigarettes in "Untitled Diptych #XV (smoking/ cafe)" are matrices of reflective surfaces and city architecture infused with the energy of pedestrian and automotive activity. The piece—a study in the universal body language of the smoker—conveys that particular kind of solitude one can only experience in an urban setting. The Vatican exterior and the Metropolitan Museum interior that make up "Untitled Diptych #V (vatican/ met)" form powerful architectural diagonals that cut across their compositions and angle to form the impression of a vanishing point between them.
The image on the left side of "Untitled Diptych #VII (gorge/ water)" is a vast plateau that opens into a valley with a river flowing through it. This is offset by the tightly framed image of a woman floating on water, seen from the bottoms of her naked feet to her chin and nose, which point to the sky. Her arms are outstretched—an inescapable association to the image of a crucifixion. There is nothing obvious about this pairing, and yet the interplay between the two images gives rise to a sense of the sacred. What intuitive geomancy allowed Chicquor to perceive the shape of the cross echoed in the vacancies and shadows that form in the valley? The presence of light is palpable in each image. And sure enough, the two compositions form yet another set of vectors suggestive of yet another vanishing point.
It is no coincidence that vectors and vanishing points figure so prominently in Side by Side. The show's patron saint is surely the critic John Berger, whose celebrated 1972 book, Ways of Seeing, is quoted obliquely in the graphics of the show's announcement and referenced in its name. The show's almost uncanny thematic consistency and sense of overflowing visual poetry are available to any viewer willing to take the time to seek it out. Chicquor has achieved a body of work of such seamless congruency (it even has a discernable color palette of greens and oranges) that it's as if, for Chicquor, perception itself is a curatorial act.