New York

Sharon Lockhart

Friedrich Petzel Gallery

For Virginia Woolf, a moment was best understood by dissecting the particular elements that made it up, so that “the truth of it, the whole of it” might be composed. Just as Woolf sought out the small details of a scene—a lamp being lit or the hoot of an owl—to convey the singularity of an instant so, too, Sharon Lockhart dwells on the minutiae of the particular settings her figures inhabit. In one of the eight color photographs presented in her second New York solo show, a waiflike girl stands on a fuzzy gray rug, staring off into the distance, completely absorbed by whatever it is that has fixed her gaze. The scene around the girl is rendered in deliberate detail: a glass coffee table stands in front of her; a small painting hangs on the wall just to her right; and to her left, a tiled hallway leads to another room with a window and a dining set. Yet unlike Woolf, Lockhart thwarts attempts to assemble the contents of her vignettes into any sort of sensible whole. More director than photographer, she casts her figures/actors into scenes of her own construction, whose script remains obscure.

Four of the photographs in the exhibition present mundane interior scenes; in all these Vermeer-by-numbers, Lockhart gives us figures that are completely unavailable. Standing in the middle of a bedroom, hands on hips, a man appears to look straight at us, but he really stares right through us. We return his empty gaze, our eyes finally lost in layer upon layer of cool dark reflecting surfaces and the glare of numerous lamps. In yet another photograph, a man in a baseball cap stands at a shiny white-tile counter filling a container with chili pepper; his watch reads “Sunday, 3:52 PM.” Though Lockhart tempts us by presenting characters whose poses suggest provocative psychological states, finally, the figures defy our attempts to know them, deflecting our gaze and our partial narratives into a maze of shimmering surfaces, each delivering yet another fragment of a scene—whose what and where remain ambiguous—that brings us no closer to the whole. Ultimately, we never learn how to put together all the visual information piled into these pictures.

Two photographs present sublime landscapes: in one, Lockhart captures the view from a craggy seaside cliff, her camera quieting the churning sea below; in another, she pulls viewers into the blinding whiteout of a snow scene that all but obscures the Evergreen forest in the distance. In each case, Lockhart’s images are never quite still. Whether through the swirl of the ocean or a plethora of banal details, she delivers the viewer into a contemplative state that is anything but restful.

Lockhart’s photographs, like Vermeer’s paintings or Woolf’s novels, render the moment as something ineffable, and always in motion. She uses each detail to pull us to another place in the tableaux. Her “moments” are so open-ended that they trouble the line between still photography’s “frozen” image and cinema’s moving pictures. While Lockhart may present us with a static image, it is one that reveals its complexity to viewers over time, as steeped in duration as a filmed vignette. Though she frustrates the viewer’s desire for narrative closure, this is not merely a critical pose or a theoretical device, instead it creates an alternative way of seeing—one that privileges the purely visual pleasure of looking and discovery as defining traits of experience.

Sydney Pokorny