Jennifer Bornstein, Big Head with House on Fire, 2020, gelatin silver print, 62 × 42 1⁄2".

Jennifer Bornstein, Big Head with House on Fire, 2020, gelatin silver print, 62 × 42 1⁄2".

Jennifer Bornstein

Like so many beguiling things, the works in Jennifer Bornstein’s recent exhibition “Ghosts” looked simpler than they were. Eight unique gelatin silver prints, large in scale (roughly five and a half by three and a half feet), they bore unembellished titles, among them Teacup, 2019; Two Houses on Fire, 2020; and Big Heads, 2021. But these are not what the photographs are of, not really—to the extent that a photograph is ever of anything at all.

Teacup contains two images (though I began to think of them as dreams or hallucinations), one above the other: In stark profile, a cartoonish figure with an oversize bald head and bulbous nose, wearing a top hat branded with a sickle, seems to march forward, holding in front of him a house-shaped placard on a stick, its eyelike window gaping white; below, in silhouette again, a tiny disembodied hand clutches a teacup. In Protestors Protesting, 2019, and Big Head with House on Fire, 2020, we saw more placards and more strange shadow-puppet figures, but in unusual, almost geometric compositions, as if something has been scrambled or collaged. At the center of the latter work, below the black void of the head of the title, a white flame flares, its edges delicately shadowed in grainy grays. In Small Ghost, 2021, it was hard to tell what we were looking at—a gauzy flickering phantasm?—but that doesn’t matter, so seductive are the rich blacks of a picture that hangs so artlessly from two tiny magnets, the sheet’s unevenly cut top and bottom edges curling away from the wall, announcing its materiality.

“She told me to take the manila envelope fragments and to use them as raw material for my own artwork, to give them life and run with them,” Bornstein says of her mother in an accompanying essay, “So this is what I did.” The “fragments”—a roughly edited reel of Super 8 film footage, frames of which Bornstein used to make her prints, and a reel-to-reel audio tape—are what remain of a community-theater project the artist’s mother worked on in the 1980s, in the Cascade neighborhood of Seattle, when the artist was ten. Bornstein’s mother, having put her own artistic career on hold for a more economically viable degree in social work, got to know locals at a community center that served free meals. Over food, the visitors discussed a disturbing series of fires in the area; an arsonist seemed intent on destroying low-income residential buildings, driving inhabitants out of their homes. (The area is now home to Amazon’s main campus.) Of the play, which circled around these events, Bornstein remembers nothing but feeling terrified. She does recall, however, helping to make props for the film that served as a backdrop for the drama. “This has haunted me since and may be part of the motivation for revisiting the materials,” she writes.

Photography functions, at times, as a mnemonic device for what cannot be seen or recollected with precision. For Bornstein, making these works was like a latter-day collaboration with her mother, whose artistic themes—precarious housing, financial inequality, “the chaotic and sometimes flammable, tenuous nature of everyday life”—she was surprised to find akin to her own. The photographs are a means, perhaps, of both summoning and displacing an experience: the play, economic insecurity, youth, apprehension. Childhood is so often weird and lonely, and memories of it even more so, full of details writ large with vivid import, flashes of what happened—or did it? Bornstein’s works reveal their making. Incisions, pieces of tape used in splicing, and the corrugated edge of the 8-mm film stock that the artist projected onto light-sensitive paper in a photochemical darkroom are visible in the images. We know that we are seeing something made, but made from the past, too, from familial residue and a special memorious inheritance.