Toronto

Shelagh Alexander

Ydessa Gallery

Shelagh Alexander raids family albums and super-8 films for images to rephotograph in black and white. The kidnapped images are then shrunken, swollen, pruned, or otherwise rearranged and organized together in quite unpredictable ways. This exhibition consisted of six pairs of 50-by-40-inch black and white panels, oriented so that the three pairs labeled “part one” on one wall of the gallery faced the three designated “part two” on the opposite wall. The exhibit was meant’ to be viewed as if it were being read left to right, from the first photograph around to the twelfth; the story that evolved, however, was not one of characters in action, but of character formation out of a swirl of perceptual, sexual, and ultimately political illusions.

The first four photographs in part one included excerpts from family snapshots: Mother, Father, or both, and even Alexander’s mother as a child, are suspended along a watery shore where everything, including their own body parts, horses, shadows, houses, sky, even the sunlight, clutters the seascape without regard to scale, gravity, or corporeality. A hand on the horizon is as big as a house. A horse bolts out of Mom’s bathing suit. Part one ended with explosive imagery: a photograph that centers on the family’s obedient pup was paired with blowups of the dog’s and surrounding shadows, floating in which are glimpses of buildings toppled by dynamite and icy waters where innocents drown.

Part two no less than part one urged reflection on the mechanism by which objects and gestures in such complex, topsy-turvy relationships as these actually communicate. Certainly the figures and locales—a fellow in a torn T-shirt, for example, or a room full of new rubber boots—evoke experiences of a memorable physicality as well as thematic or emotional associations. The man in the ripped shirt pushes against an invisible barrier till every muscle bulges in frustration. Sensuality makes these symbols comprehensive, but there is more to them than that; though they might seem readily accounted for by a Freudian interpretation they function more as found objects, found images whose ambiguity is preserved and whose function is to explore alternate or potential realities rather than to provide unconscious, regressive relief. These are not secret symbols of an object of gratification but symbols that dispute the boundary between objective and subjective. The horses, the nebulas, the clasped hands, the multitude of recurring forms speak of unprecedented interactions with reality.

Each separate panel here recapitulates the themes of sexual, social, or political desire seeking its rightful autonomy. Ambiguity enlivens the symbolism and leaves the narrative of psychological and ideological transformation in an implicit, not a didactic state. In the eleventh and twelfth panels the muscle-bound symbol of domination is nearly transparent as it sinks into the sea. In the final panel an ordinary girl lifts a celebratory quaff of champagne.

Jeanne Randolph