Darkness Visible

Jessica Kaufman approaches the unspeakable indirectly, with a sidelong glance, perhaps wisely understanding that none of us can bear to meet it head-on. With irony, she has named her series at Rayko Panopticon, after the 18th century architectural design of Jeremy Bentham that allowed the guards to view prisoners at all times.

The gelatin silver prints must have gone through many successive bouts of processing: the tattered looking fringes speak of the kind of treatment that weathered cloth betrays after long exposure. The piece facing you as you enter the gallery is the one that I spent the most time looking at, teasing apart, without realizing it, layer after layer of detail that reveal eventual deep and unexpectedly dark references. Because, on the face of it, the work is buoyant and charming and maybe even a little quaint. The big billowing smog cloud rising above the rooftops is revealed to be comprised of layers of photographs of tree trunks and limbs. You could even be excused for attributing some pleasant symbolism to its presence: the dreams of the sleepers in the houses below perhaps, combining into one huge collective ether of wonder. But naggingly, that windowed tower on the left sticks out. An airport? Near houses? A prison tower then, meaning the houses are in fact barracks.
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If you go in for reading the artist’s statement right off the bat, you would have had the jump on me, but I usually take a few minutes with a picture first before looking for help. It is there in no uncertain terms: “the subject matter is the grounds of Nazi concentration camps.” So what hit me were wave after wave of realization that made me appreciate Kaufman’s approach. Because, in the end, the chimneys are just that, and you can see them any street in the modern world. Trees still grow where blood has been spilled, and people still dream even where they are turned into smoke. Each new layer of detail in the work is another association that fixes the horrible to the mundane. The entire piece is speckled with white dots that are by turns a rain of soot, of snow, of petals. It is also humanity burning away. The more startling images of the Holocaust are burnt into our memories, Kaufman has found a fresh view that allows us to contemplate and remember by scrutinizing the unassuming that sits side by side with the tragic.
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Rebecca Chang’s photography in the side galley provided a nice counterbalance to the intensity smoldering under the surface of Kaufman’s work. With their bluish tints and staged poses, they ape a series of candid shots of some matinee idol long forgotten. The wavy fringe at the top provides a nice illusion of spool holes from salvaged frames long left moldering in some film archive. Self-Portrait (Tree) shows the star masked, leaning against twisted roots that could be the body double for Louise Borgeois’ spider. Promoting an appearance in a Fritz Lang serial perhaps? I’ve written my own subtext of course: the cyanotypes on display while clearly inspired by the theatricality of film can bear the weight of any number of interpretations.

After obtaining a token for the princely sum of $5, I decided to try my luck at the Art-O-Mat, a refurbished cigarette machine near the door. Having recently kicked the 14 year habit myself, I’m more than happy with my pinhole photography work by Emily Long of the Campo Zaccharia in Venice, cleverly wrapped around a small block of wood for ballast.
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