Layla Rudneva-Mackay

“Cinematic” suggests too great a distance from the everyday to characterize accurately the kinds of simple tableaux photographed by Layla Rudneva-Mackay. That her scenarios—portraits of people whose faces we cannot see, for example—are directed constructs is evident, though. Many of the large C-prints in the Auckland-based artist’s new exhibition, “Tell yourself you’re ok,” display gestures, but without showing us the people who make them. Most actors are hidden behind cloth, emphasizing something not simply conventional but still general in their poses. In this way, the images communicate an unusual sensitivity to form and its connotations. The nonverbal cues to which we might respond from the figures and their positioning suggest a level of intuition that evokes the unspoken sense of a situation.

The settings of the photographs are indefinite outdoor spaces, which the artist populates with simply constructed apparitions. The bolts of color—in most cases cloth—that are raised within the frame insert an abstract feature into the landscape as if through an act of painting, but in a way that is obviously and directly the consequence of someone’s action. In Painted pines, 2007, the painting is literal, the fallen limbs and dead needles that clot the dark space under a group of trees loaded with pigment. The explanatory title does nothing to diminish the strangeness of the scene or its beauty. This combination of the aesthetically unexpected and the materially familiar allows Rudneva-Mackay to picture the plants’ intermingling with human activity, whether the history of the artificial introduction of the exotic species to the New Zealand landscape, or the suggestion of some nearby habitation; in any case, someone has been here and their trace is palpable.

Another work with a descriptive title, Blue velvet, grey stones, 2008, is one of several single-figure poses. Staged against a pile of quarried gravel, the photograph shows someone holding a piece of cloth at arm’s length over their head and letting it trail on the ground in front of them. Here, more obviously, we are shown an invisible human presence. The pantomime convention of a ghost as a person under a sheet is replayed, yet with no pretension to staging an illusion of the ethereal. As in most of these works, the fabric in the image is easily identified—here, perhaps, it’s an old curtain, as elsewhere a dress, a blanket, and a bedsheet appear—so the fact that the human presence is unseen seems neither unusual nor reliant on special effects.

Uniquely in this group of works, Marlborough, 2008, shows a conventionally dressed man and woman. They are seated in chairs facing one another in a thistly field in the titular location. Their poses are subtly asymmetrical: Hers is more closed and contained. The scene suggests thwarted communication, perhaps even an attempt at telepathy. Such speechless interchange resonates with the spectrally cloaked presences of Rudneva-Mackay’s other images, and is likewise demystified when we come to notice that the man’s foot is reaching across to graze hers—and that communication without words might be achieved by something as ordinary as touch.

Jon Bywater