The Way I See Us: Family Portraits
Photographs by Tama Hochbaum
Horace Williams House
Preservation Society of Chapel Hill
610 E. Rosemary St.
Through July 29
There is something archetypal about the grounds at the historic Horace Williams House. Just walking up to the place gives rise to childhood memories of playing in the front yard, petting the cat who sleeps lazily under a tree, taking it easy on the side porch. Even if none of these experiences resonate with one's actual childhood, it is difficult not to be lulled into an almost nostalgic sense of Home. It is therefore appropriate that Tama Hochbaum's current photography exhibit, The Way I See Us: Family Portraits, takes place in this setting.
The show is built around images that consist solely of Hochbaum's nuclear family, portraits of four individuals who constitute an "us." That tension, between the individual self and the collective unit, seems to fuel this show, framing the idea of family as a wily alchemy, a chaotic mix of love, fate, genetics and chance.
Hochbaum's artistic origins are in painting and printmaking. This orientation shows itself in an authoritative sense of composition and a masterful use of color. Hochbaum's palette ranges from placid, washed-out tones, as in her son's purple-gray shirt in "Backyard Fog," to the acid pink of her daughter's pants in "Late Afternoon," to the bold, saturated green in a piece of broccoli in "Name Plate," a whimsical composition that finds her daughter's name spelled out in dinner leftovers.
At face value, the body of work presented here could be associated with the practice of other contemporary self-referential artists such as Cindy Sherman, Anthony Goicolea, John Coplans and particularly Sally Mann. However, Hochbaum's work seems to adhere closer to an impulse of classical aesthetics, which strives for "the Beautiful" in structural elements such as light, space, composition and color. Her project circulates around itself and does not seem to aspire to broader conceptual or theoretical statements. If anything, the work's conceptual trajectory moves inward, keeping the dialogue personal, internal.
Throughout the exhibit there is a feeling of being exposed. Hochbaum wields vulnerability as an aesthetic tool. She brings into focus details that feel surprisingly private. Works like "Wal-Mart Skirt" or "Crimped Hair" home in on the minutiae of daily life, items that are close to home and close to the body. Two works, "Voidoids" and "Out of the Box," point to the T-shirts that her son wears. Clothing, in these works, feels deeply intimate. A series of digital prints from negative titled "Not Claire's Knee" frames fragments of her daughter's body ("I. Ear," "II. Eye," "III. Nose," "IV. Hands"). These are studies in familiarity, close-ups on the subject of closeness.
The work in The Way I See Us presents a continuum of normalcy into strangeness. "Family Portrait" shows Hochbaum's four family members, each posed with a different musical instrument. There is a suspended symmetry to this piece, yet it also sustains an awkwardness. The facial expressions look somehow vacant and internal, and the bodies are uncomfortably posed, self-conscious. The family hangs in the space of the piece; David Lynch might have art-directed this one.
The exhibit also includes several self-portraits by Hochbaum. In these digital composite prints, various objects—leaves, fabric, pearls—float in front of multiple images of the artist. The self-portraits are the most manipulated, or constructed, of the show. Hochbaum seems most free to capture her own image in more abstract ways, allowing herself to become subsumed by the whole of a piece. These works speak to an overarching notion that seems present in much of The Way I See Us the idea that life can be an art form, and that all we see is available to us as source material for our own creation. And for Hochbaum, at least, oneself and one's family members can also be performers, participants, subjects, inspiration and aesthetic resource in an ongoing art/ life process.
The centerpiece of The Way I See Us might be found in another digital composite print called "Bath Time," where Hochbaum has framed a series of images of her daughter's upper body and head, submerged in milky white bath water. These images are dreamy, floaty; each image displays subtle changes and shifts in focus, with nuanced variations in color. Each repetition of Claire's image captures another split second of awareness and lull in her facial expression and body language. Her hair floats in the water, where it tracks and reveals the quiet physics of the bath. "Bath Time" sets the tone for The Way I See Us, presenting a submerged and intimate world, one that has been conjured and co-orchestrated by Hochbaum and her family members.