New York

Ruth Thorne-Thomsen

Marcus Pfeifer

In the photographs in her “Expedition” series, 1976–84, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen alluded to the great archaeological photographs of the 19th century, such as those made by Maxime Du Camp of the monuments of Egypt. In many of them, Thorne-Thomsen showed large brooding stone heads, like the fragmented remains of some sphinx, sitting in the middle of the desert surrounded by tiny figures. Taken with pinhole cameras and presented as small sepia-toned black-and-white prints, they have a somewhat fuzzy, dreamlike quality that heightens the feeling that they come from a more innocent period of picturemaking. The deep sense of space provided by pinhole cameras is also crucial in making the scenes believable, for the massive heads are actually small cutout photographs that Thorne-Thomsen stuck in the sand and then photographed from close up. These pictures recapture at least some of the sense of wonder that 19th-century explorers and photographers must have felt when they were confronted with the monumental remains of earlier civilizations. At the same time they are about psychological relationships between the sexes: the massive but fragmented head is invariably that of a woman, while the explorers who stand in its shadow are men.

Thorne-Thomsen’s photographs also recall the uncanny juxtapositions of Surrealism, and in the recent works in this show (from 1986 and ’87) she has strengthened that direction. Here, she has cut out silhouettes of women’s heads from photographs of various subjects, mostly of landscapes or natural objects, and rephotographed them in other landscape settings. Instead of treating the cutout heads like props in the staged scene, she places them in the extreme foreground of the image, as if they were part of the surface of the print itself.

By this simple shift in technique, Thorne-Thomsen opens up a much wider range of associations in the pictures. The profile serves as a window frame through which we see another world, but it also becomes a topographical marker dividing the surface of the print into different but related parts. By making the image inside the profile no longer simply a representation of a head, Thorne-Thomsen sets up a series of dichotomies between the two parts of the picture: the image inside the profile is made private and timeless, a metaphorical representation of a person’s interior life; the outside becomes public and historical.

In many pictures the image inside the profile serves as a kind of emotional cross-section in which hidden aspects of the figure’s personality are revealed; in others, though, it becomes a mask. In Señora Flora, New Mexico, 1987, the image inside the silhouette is of a flower, one of whose petals is draped across the figure’s eyes like a blindfold; in Pacifica, New Mexico, 1986, the profile has been cut out of a photograph of a striated shell, making it appear as if a cloth were wrapped around the figure’s entire head. In still other pictures the pattern of the imagery inside the profile looks like elaborate, highly illusionistic makeup or body decoration.

Some of Thorne-Thomsen’s photographs seem too closely related to well-known Surrealist works—for example, in Turrita Mater, Colorado, 1986, the profile cut from a picture of a rocky mesa recalls Man Ray’s 1938 painting of the Marquis de Sade as a massive stone fortress. Also, in accepting the conventional romantic association of women with landscape, Thorne-Thomsen risks falling into melodramatic and overly familiar imagery. More often than not, though, the pictures provoke a dialogue of meanings between the figure and its ground, using the Surrealist tactic of juxtaposition to construct fresh and resonant images.

Charles Hagen