New York

Phyllis Galembo

Oggi Domani

In her color photographs since the late ’70s Phyllis Galembo has pursued a campy theatricality, dressing people in absurd costumes (some suggesting Carmen Miranda’s fruit bowls) and posing them among artfully crude sets in splashy colors. An argument could be made that these pictures are linked formally to two apparently disparate genres in photography, setups and hand-decorated prints, but Galembo’s tableaux belie such connections through their utter wackiness. Beneath their exuberance, though, most of her pictures have a dark undercurrent of anxiety, a sense of straining after hilarity.

Several of the photographs here bring these two qualities of Galembo’s work into sharp confrontation, shifting the cutesy coyness of her earlier pictures to a new and affecting emotional honesty. Her theme is one by now so familiar in contemporary photography that it’s in danger of becoming a cliché—the stereotypes of women prevalent in the culture. But by allowing her models to adopt unforced expressions, rather than the frantic mugging that appears frequently in her earlier work, she expresses poignantly the painful distance between ideal and actual, between type and individual. Thus in Cornelia, 1983, a 24-by-20-inch Polaroid, purple drapes are drawn back to reveal a woman in a low-cut red gown standing in front of a shiny, rose-colored, Art Decoish prop made of steel. The melodramatic overtones of the set are accentuated by the woman’s swooning pose, but her glum stare denies the sentimentality implicit in the scene. Instead of the narcissistic self-absorption this stereotyped rendition of woman-as-victim usually supposes, the woman’s direct gaze acknowledges that she is playing a role, and breaks the theatrical isolation implied in the convention. The extreme resolution of the large Polaroid print further undercuts the idealized generality of the stereotype, anchoring the photograph in the physical particularity of this woman, this moment. All the seams are showing—not only the edges of Galembo’s flimsy-looking sets, but the stubble of the woman’s shaved armpit, the stretch marks on her breast.

In two smaller Cibachromes, Wedding Portrait and Woman with Hot Water Bottle, both 1982, Galembo again contrasts bubbly sets and costumes with people whose solemn expressions have an emotional immediacy and suggest an inner life. These qualities can be found in many successful photographic portraits, and in another large Polaroid, Self-Portrait, 1983, Galembo combines her skill as a portraitist with her awareness of photographic artifice and her own fascination with it. Standing amid the same set she used in Cornelia, the artist, loosely draped in blue satin, clutches a large ball of crumpled-up tinfoil and turns her face heavenward. Bathed with light from above, her expression is nothing less than beatific. Nearly everything about the picture is a joke, a parody of the sentiment-steeped damsels of the Photo Secession, with the tinfoil ball a purposely deflated echo of the crystal globes that the maidens in George F. Seeley’s or Clarence White’s pictures always lugged around. But Galembo’s blissful expression is utterly sincere. I was told that she really hoped this picture wouldn’t sell. Given the photograph’s suggestion of the contradictory emotional urges of a certain kind of artist—a demand for unflinching honesty, or at least critically aware sincerity, and at the same time a yearning for transcendence—I can understand her attachment to it.

Charles Hagen