Los Angeles

Eileen Quinlan

For an artist who cites accidental elements in her practice, Eileen Quinlan is undeniably fixed on the parameters and the quantifiable conditions of making a photograph. While the images she produces are marked by bleeding colors and the incidental abstraction of common objects, Quinlan in her meticulous experimentations stages her materially driven subject matter with the precision and control of a set designer—even employing the trade secrets of commercial photography, such as smoke machines, filters, and strobe and key lighting. For her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, titled “Downtime,” Quinlan presented eleven new works—mostly from her ongoing series “Night Flight” and “Santa Fe” (both begun in 2008)—which carefully choreograph a tension between constructed elements.

To make a picture, Quinlan typically assembles a discrete arrangement of materials (a kind of nonfigurative still life) and then shoots it in extreme close-up with a fixed camera. For each image in a series, the artist manipulates the ambient conditions of the arrangement, which, in the case of “Night Flight” and “Santa Fe,” involved lighting her subject from oblique angles while deploying a variety of colored gels. In this way, each series presents tonal variations on a single repeated composition. In the main gallery of her recent show, for example, four large “Night Flight” C-prints portrayed the same geometric, starburst pattern formed by the meeting edges of perpendicular mirrors: While Night Flight #40 (all works 2008) is bathed entirely in shades of blue, creating a dark navy center that bleeds outward toward an azure penumbra, Night Flight #49 is a prismatic burst of black, orange, and translucent green set against a sharp white background.

Quinlan resists digital processes in her work. In a mediascape where digital photography has become ubiquitous, desensitizing the average viewer to staged or unlikely superimpositions, Quinlan’s analogue approach can seem outmoded. This is particularly true of the “Santa Fe” series, which, though a purely formal study, has a distinctly retro aura. In a saturated palette of hot pink, indigo, and lime (colors that go quickly in and out of fashion), these slickly produced images read like illegible fragments of a 1980s cosmetics ad. In this group of photos, a cubist composition is formed by propped-up mirrors that reflect gauzy surfaces awash in colored shadows; razor-thin beams of light are refracted along the intersecting planes; suggestions of interior and exterior space are collapsed into one irregular field. On the longest wall of the main gallery, five prints in a row seem to progress from daylight to darkness, as if the first, Santa Fe #2, had been photographed at high noon and the last, Santa Fe #20, at twilight. After prolonged viewing, these abstract pictures appear as synthetic landscapes.

Photographs are notoriously unreliable documents, yet the credibility of photography today remains generally undisputed in mainstream culture, insuring its continued value to, if not dominance in, advertising, journalism, and politics. Quinlan, too, exploits our willing sus- pension of disbelief to explore the limits of the medium, while making a convincing case for the value of ambiguity. That her moody compositions can simultaneously exist as essays on deception and as seductive, formal exercises, is the strength of Quinlan’s ongoing project. If she continues to exploit the slippage between the real and the fictive, her serialized images should continue to surprise.

Catherine Taft