New York

Eve Sonneman

Castelli Graphics

In her recent photographs Eve Sonneman has abandoned her trademark format. While the earlier works were arranged in sequential pairs, each image showing a different but near-identical view, these are large (20-by-24-inch) single Cibachrome prints. Their subjects are somewhat equivocal situations mingling mundane and marvelous, beautiful and bizarre. In one, fleshy bathers occupy the foreground beach while a distant roller coaster has been set aflame (the photograph was shot at Coney Island). In another, black-skinned dancers with shimmering costumes in strident hues parade through a city street (this one was taken in Brooklyn). A third shows two smiling children posed in a suburban setting, their flesh and clothes, like the house and car behind them, soaked in a lurid, mauve-toned light. A rainbow illuminates the sky, adding a strangely ominous note. And underneath each image, inscribed on the mat, is a lightly-penciled title, a “caption.”

The critic of Real Time here gives us “Times of Man and Nature,” a bombastic, pretentious title which seems to point to a subtle enigma. For the disjunctive compositions of Sonneman’s earlier works have been collapsed, or elided, into single configurations. And this strategy serves to pit two different temporal modalities one against another. In that Coney Island scene, for example, the day-by-day, workaday time of bathers on a beach is juxtaposed to the “eternal” time of destruction. And those dancers are entranced, inhabiting the distended dimension of ritual time, while a traffic light in the background is primed to the diurnal rhythm of the street. One image shows a rose, seen in close-up with petals unfolded to imply full bloom, which rests against leaves covered with glistening, dewlike drops. The rose seems part of a picturesque vision, suggesting the paradox of a perpetual present—but we know from the title that this “dew” is not dew at all, but, rather, volcanic ash. A chilling intimation of another, eternal, less beneficent time enters from this juxtaposition of beauty and decay. And, in another photograph, the silvery grisaille of volcanic ash takes on the qualities of an old and weathering wall, for all the particularity of the moment. Something of photography’s specificity—of its ability to “seize” or “capture” time—seems to be held up to question against the larger framework of metaphor.

It is Sonneman’s titles, however, indicating what these images “represent,” that appear most elusive and polemic. For, Walter Benjamin notwithstanding, these captions give little clue as to the actual meanings of the events. They may “place” their images in space and time, delineating given situations, but they in no way determine the images’ visual effects, or delimit their operative range. Knowing that that suburban scene, for example, is a photograph of Chemically Damaged Children in no way explains our unease. The kids look fine; it’s the landscape that’s bizarre. . . . And Sonneman seems to augment this dilemma by imbuing her images with surrealistic tones. Most are shot from close range—placed flat against the viewer, at the point where the immobilizing hold of analysis becomes problematic. And many are shot in complicity with Cibachrome, using its shadows, viscous surface, and harsh, unsettling hues to unmoor the phenomenon from the event. The images seem to slide, slither, and slip away, as if endlessly evading their coordinates. And, in so playing with the ambiguities of the actual, Sonneman has deepened her range.

Kate Linker