New York

Lois Conner

Laurence Miller Gallery

Lois Conner’s panoramic platinum prints of China give us the provinces before mechanization and good roads. Even large cities look provincial. An occasional bicycle and old truck are the most modern things we see, and only the imperial architecture of Beijing and the British imperialist architecture of Shanghai act as historical markers. The rest is gardens, yards, streets, fields, steep buttes, low-lying ancient ruins on empty plateaus, and peasants.

Using large negatives on platinum-treated paper—which together produce the most finely-graduated scale of grays now available to photographers—Conner infuses every scene with a high silvery light so serene that we feel her China is governed by slow-moving tradition and cyclical time rather than by change, progress, and history. Her compositions seem to be both products of her will to form and of her having merely framed those visual harmonies in nature by which we call this or that stretch of land a landscape.

The writer Colette expresses this same ambiguity in the form of a half-question at the end of a remarkable sentence in which she recalls her childhood impressions of her mother’s garden: “Apart from a curve of earth, apart from a thicket of cherry laurels topped by a ginko tree—I used to give its ray-shaped leaves to my schoolmates who would dry them between the pages of the atlas—the whole warm garden thrived in a yellow light quivering with reds and violets, yet I couldn’t tell whether this red, this violet, hinged, still hinge, on a sentimental happiness or on an optical dazzlement.”

Another connection between Conner’s art and this sentence lies in the sentence type itself, which, like Conner’s panoramic frame, sections off a seemingly boundless continuum. Conner uses a 100-year-old “banquet” view camera whose 7-by-17 inch negative was designed for group portraits or to photograph broad vistas in the style of 19th-century panoramic painting. Apart from these uses it becomes, by virtue of its width, close to magic. Unbounded by subject or by logic, this capacious frame can respond to the subtle shifts in an artist’s awareness. Just as Colette, beginning in a garden, shifts from trees to leaves to school mates to end in philosophical speculation, Conner begins with two peasants standing for their portrait, moving past them through the dusty village square and villagers at everyday tasks, and ends with workers around a heavy truck which, in Conner’s light, is almost pure form. The mode of both sentence and frame moves from description to narration to abstraction, all of which are subsumed by lyricism. By bringing into one conceptual framework such disparate elements, and by shifting from one rhetorical mode to another, the artist creates with it neither a portrait nor a report but an entirely imaginative world and a picture of her rapidly shifting sensuous thought and subtly moving soul.

Too often Conner is not equal to her frame. Consider Colette’s atlas. With school girls drying leaves between its pages come the pages themselves, their pinks, greens, yellows, and aquamarines, their map-lines, and names like the Ivory Coast and Madagascar—come memory, revery, the magic of names, and the pleasure of sound. Conner’s art is based largely on the poetry of clear accounts of things; its success depends on such moments. Many of her details could provide them but they do not hold our eye, we note them and move on. One senses her shying away from that difficult middle ground where, before giving subject form, artists let it awaken what it will in their heart—understanding, knowledge, and memory—just as Colette found an atlas and a world in ginko leaves. The rest is handling, which should pose no difficulty for an artist of Conner’s touch and with her command over the plastic elements of art.

Ben Lifson