New York

Shellburne Thurber

Participant Inc.

As practices, art and psychoanalysis have a few things in common. Both build from and depend on histories (often hidden); both understand images to be powerful and full of elusive meaning. Psychoanalysis, of course, is also a methodology for reading art (for a piquant early example, see Freud’s 1910 psychobiography of Leonardo da Vinci). When, in 1998, Boston-based artist Shellburne Thurber began her ongoing series of photographs of psychoanalysts’ unoccupied offices (first in Buenos Aires and then in Boston), she must have quickly realized she’d struck gold. While superficially similar to, say, Thomas Struth’s or Candida Höfer’s quiet interiors, Thurber’s images, unlike the Germans’ visions of restraint, are as heavily loaded as a good foundational incest myth.

These are spaces filled with the ghosts of ghosts, where private histories and narratives unfold; psychic spaces, although it’s hard to say whether they’re sacred or profane. (The only other time you see so many tissue boxes close at hand is in photographs of bordellos.) We also pick up an undeniable association with the atelier, the artist’s or writer’s studio, where intense creative work takes place.

Most of these offices, of course, contain couches, which vary from the modern to the antique to the just plain shabby (these are psychoanalysts, after all, not psychiatrists). From the folksy, craftsy ambience of Cambridge, MA: Basement office with pink analyst’s chair and couch, 2000, to the traditionally appointed New England interior with a twist in Brookline, MA: Porch office with antique couch and clown print, 2000, it’s hard not to notice an overall preponderance of midcentury modern furniture and, well, modern art. Sometimes, scrutinizing the photos feels like looking at a Louise Lawler. You wonder why the analyst chose a black leather couch or a deep red velvet chair (fetish specialists?), or if his or her choice of Rousseau’s The Dream isn’t just a bit overdetermined, given the setting. Art and design decisions seem to dove-tail with a regularity that makes you wonder if aesthetic—as well as analytic—choices aren’t hardwired into the practice.

Thurber wisely keeps the photographs’ glossiness to a minimum, mirroring instead the less-than-picture-perfect nature of her subject matter. What’s more important here is an idea of activated space, the mundane, ordinary site turned by virtue of therapeutic activity into an extraordinary one. Her uninflected style is the handmaiden in this exercise; she records her subject simply rather than dresses it up. The photographs themselves could even be thought of as the unconscious, absorbing all the details for posterity and perhaps, later, analysis. The gallery statement refers to the “absence” and “emptiness” in these spaces, but one wonders if Thurber isn’t trying to capture a latent fullness, defined by the practice of what has become, for many contemporary urban humans in the West, a new religion or mystery cult, in which the therapist’s office is virtually a shrine.

Martha Schwendener