Kyle Patnaude: Utter Silence

“Untitled 91817-330 – Redaction Series” photo print on aluminum, 16” x 16”, 2017

When we speak today of initiating dialogue, what we achieve more than not is diatribe. Entrenched speakers compete against another without genuine exchange of thought. Yet it’s diversity of thought that makes us human, not solipsism. Sincere communication is obtained by accepting those we perceive as the Other. We cannot engage with complex and diverse thought without the views of those who see and experience the world as different from our own. Our culture is far too engaged with apathy for that reason. For dialogue to occur, we must not shout over each other, or for that matter merely listen as we wait for rebuttal. We ought to listen and extend ourselves into the minds of difference. To do so, is empathy.

I’ve spent the entirety of my life trying to empathize with those who hate. As a thirty-three year old gay man, I grew up in the 1990s at the height of the culture wars. Life in central New York was far from the metropolitan grandeur I craved, farther still from anything hinting at queerness. My family life felt quite normal, inasmuch as most leather-clad Harley biker families are. I spent most weekends with smells of exhaust and stale beer, thundering engines and raucous tattooed men who always had time to play a game with the quiet pipsqueak running about their feet. Not surprisingly there was also a fair amount of intolerant speech growing up. These were men protecting their masculinity in ways they saw fit, ways that were counter to my own sense of masculinity. Too early in the zeitgeist to come out to family and peers in my teens, I instead learned how to listen. I learned how to comprehend complexity. For a gay kid growing up in a family that loved him, but didn’t understand the inequity of their speech, resentment grew only fruitless benefits. Throughout college, I sat silently in the company of many straight men in power who expressed severe discomfort with sexual difference. I did this not out of self-hatred, but to gain a deeper understanding of humanity, about privilege, and my role within it. While I didn’t have the privilege to speak, I could think. Thinking as Plato and Aristotle describe—being in silent dialogue between me and myself. The dialogue of utter silence.

“Untitled 8817-1031 – Redaction Series” photo print on aluminum, 16” x 16”, 2017

Having empathy toward the offensive and intolerant has many attributes. I’m fully aware that while I speak of empathy and understanding through dialogue, I will never persuade the minds of demagogues like former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos or his followers. Direct activism is not my strength. I am an educator and my art practice reflects that position. My passion lies with philosophical activism: presenting ideas and challenging clichés, in order for you to determine your own mind.

 

We also hear a lot about safe spaces today, especially on college campuses. In 2016 after the presidential election, there were a number of attempts at liberal solidarity. One particular gesture provoked me the most, that of the safety pin. Situated as a political statement, the goal was to visibly show support towards marginalized groups by wearing the most innocuous of objects, a safety pin. The wearer in doing so proclaimed a willingness to confront injustices and not become a silent witness. While the motivations are perfectly valid, I found for the most part, they became empty gestures to assuage despondency and guilt. The following year I started the Panzi Project in conversation with this phenomenon. Making use of a previous pattern from several sculptures of manhole covers, the cross icon was cast in aluminum and transformed into a lapel pin. Referencing WWI remembrance poppies, the cross was turned on its side to form an X and summon the genocidal histories of LGBT people. The sale of each pin acts as a complete donation to the Canadian charity The Rainbow Railroad, whose mission is to liberate LGBT people from countries with state-enabled violence, murder and persecution. The alternate intention is to expose the gesture of silence as feel- good activism. The participants are presented with a choice of action or inaction, apathy or empathy. The double-edged sword of a good deed done at one point in time, and the follow through of continued action.

The most crucial question of dialogue is who speaks and who is spoken to. The privilege of speech dictates both a voice and absence of voice. While the direction of authority determines the exchange as either one or two-way communication. The difficulty of dialogue is whether we engage in cooperative or competitive arguments, where minds can come together or emotions flare. The most treacherous is the echo chamber, that cacophony of compliant speech where people form words but never speak to one another. We have shifted from exploring nuance into defending talking points and safeguarding sameness, comfortable in the fragile narcissistic tribes we have constructed for ourselves.

 

This type of sectarianism is quite ominous for our society. It shields us from discussions of difference, particularly when contrasting ideas occur within the same community. Inability to resonate with the echo chamber can be grounds for expulsion from the tribe. Unanimity of opinion quickly fabricates a level of fanaticism and eliminates those who dissent. While the gay community in public discourse is often seen as persecuted and oppressed, the struggle of inclusivity has many facets. I’m here to say that insularly, the community has many pitfalls with racism, exclusion, and agenda. Dissenters from the prescribed culture are not always made welcome, with some quite dangerous effects.

“Untitled 8417-625 – Redaction Series” photo print on aluminum, 20” x 30”, 2017
“Untitled 8517-1230 – Redaction Series” photo print on aluminum, 16” x 16”, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researching the Panzi Project, I came across the paradoxical phenomenon of gay fascists. The Alt-Right author Jack Donovan illustrated this case in 2006 writing (under a pseudonym) his manifesto Androphilia. He writes: “Androphilia is an effort to reclaim this rich male heritage for men who love men. It dismisses those who want to confine homosexual males to a clichéd effeminate stereotype.” Far from isolated company, many other instances came to light. Milo Yiannopoulos the aforementioned Brietbart contributor, actively proclaims his associations with white supremacists, and in 2016 proudly attacked a trans student while speaking at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Yiannopoulos is also an out gay man with a black husband. Ernst Röhm, a well known homosexual, was also an early member of the Nazi Party and close friend to Adolf Hitler. Nicky Crane was a British neo-Nazi in the 1980s before he was ejected for publicly coming out as gay after he had contracted HIV. The Sun newspaper aptly printed the headline “Nazi Nick is a Panzi.”

 

Needless to say, I was at a loss for words. In order to grapple with this expanded view of what I perceived as incomprehensible, that of queer fascists, I let research dictate the conversation. The first to speak was Röhm. A high ranking member of the German Workers’ Party, Röhm was brazen in his homosexual posture. Opposing Paragraph 175, Röhm challenged heteronormative superiority and his prophetic words formed the foundation of my approach in the work. All revolutions devour their own children.” Disembodied mouths, both sexual and sinister, silently quote the dire prophecy. The photographs float in a black void as a nod to the Samuel Beckett play Not I—a reminder to myself while peering into the darkness. Aluminum truncheons, the weapon of police and symbol of authority, hang underneath Röhm’s words as tokens of masculine prowess and sexual deviance.

“Jacksie” digital photo print, 24” x 36”, 2018
“Jacksie – Brace” rubber, aluminum, nickel, 24” x 12”, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicky Crane, or “Nazi Nick,” proposed a different conversation. His double life as a homosexual man frequenting gay dance clubs one night, then leading racist attacks on young black men on another, confronted me with how the marginalized find warped positions of power. Yet Jack Donovan and Nicky Crane were too extreme to work with, I needed my own manifestation. I decided on creating a caricature of the queer alt-right: a queer skin-head who could stand as counter-vanguard and antagonist for me to reconcile with. Garlanded with a black rubber harness constructed with the same pattern as the Panzi Project, the character Jacksie came alive. Towering and hateful, his image is all posturing, his harness a bit queer. The braces (British term for suspenders) attach to nothing, merely draping over his back and shoulders. The form is based on a sautoir, a long open-ended necklace intended to draw the eye to its end, hovering just above the groin. The intention was to add some semblance of sensuality to his bereft hostility, regardless of how futile that may be. I’m apprehensive of how Jacksie takes on a life in my work. He’s contentious in his creation but also in his banality.

 

For this reason I’ve returned to the perspectives of the twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Her words on totalitarianism, now approaching seventy years from their original publication, are once again looming ominously over our current time. Arendt’s famed concept of the ‘banality of evil’ was in response to the trial of Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. Though conscious of his sheer guilt, Arendt’s expression was to convey the thoughtlessness of Eichmann’s deeds, the banality of a man performing evil without evil intention. Through conformism, blind acceptance and collaboration, one surrenders the ability to think and to be human. For Arendt, that is when evil infiltrates society.

 

There is a subtle irony in the concepts presented by Arendt and the social tribalism of today. Arendt effectively disarmed the emotional fervor surrounding Eichmann’s trial by introducing the monster as a banal thoughtless bureaucrat. I propose that same zeal in which we comply with defending liberalism produces a tangential consequence—the Mediocrity of Tolerance.

 

Clearly I don’t wish to equate the horrific atrocities of Eichmann and the Third Reich with decent people attempting to better society through advocating social progress. The banality of evil stands as a warning for generations of decent people, as a constant reminder how demagogues cultivate ‘normative morality’ to suit the tribalist ego. Social morality and ethics are the pillars of democratic societies. They also require careful and constant maintenance. When we encase ourselves in tolerance without understanding, without thinking, social dialogue becomes empty words uttered without purpose. Appearances of being ‘woke’ are revealed as little more than a daydream.

“Redaction Series installation” photo print on aluminum 2017

 

Dialogue is what rouses consciousness to the lurking contradictions within tolerance. Whereas the banality of evil elicits a normative morality, the mediocrity of tolerance elicits moral urgency. With the potential of offense engendering such trepidation, content becomes paralyzed through its curtailment. This jarring realization happened for me in the recent exhibition of a new body of work, ironically titled the Redaction Series. Twenty-one photographic metal prints of gay and trans men—each with their eyes obscured by a pixelation device. Emerging from the horrific reports of abduction, torture, and execution of homosexual men in the Russian-backed Southern Republic of Chechnya, I wanted to determine whether it was possible to document the liminal boundary of empathy and apathy. Arranging itself on two fronts, the project formed a schism between production and reception. Given that I required men to photograph, I had to form a deeper relationship and engagement with my local gay community. The basis of the work generated an outpouring of support and interest to participate. My studio gradually formed a secondary site for queer interaction and community outside the familiar bar-scene. We united into a family. Reception of the work was far more shocking. Discussion rebounded from the content of the work into a battleground of political one-upmanship. Interrogations  spanned the gamut of social triggering. I was misogynistic for the absence of lesbian women. I was transphobic for the lack of trans women. Flawed in the ambiguous representation of trans men, and insensitive to black trauma as a white artist depicting men of color. I see the anger, but also the blindness. The moral urgency to call out perceptions of intolerance kept them from seeing reality. My objective with the work was to delineate the threshold of empathy and apathy. What I discovered was a blockade.

“Till The Night Installation” photo print on aluminum, aluminum, rubber, 2018
Till The Night Installation – detail 2 photo print on aluminum, aluminum, 5” x 5” x 5”, 2018

We’ve detached ourselves from complex reasoning through encampment inside thinly-walled temples of tolerant simplicity. I needed to provide multiplicity. My role reversed from initiating conversation around empathy, to defusing apathetic tensions, and defending the contextual conditions for the project.  The greater theme of my work focuses on the hypermasculine, and the fragility/fluidity of its construction within the hetero/homo male binary. Chechen authorities have publicly condemned all homosexuality, yet their campaign of torture and murder only targeted gay men. The absence (or redaction if I may) of lesbian and trans women’s visibility in the project, is part of the dialogue. It’s not an erasure, but a conversation surrounding the politics of sexuality and masculinity. Regarding a white artist depicting people of color, Dana Schutz’s infamous painting of Emmett Till certainly has every curator of art wringing their hands. The success surrounding Schutz’s painting was in part the constructive dialogue of racial trauma. The failure of the painting was that Schutz appropriated black trauma through the privileged reflection and re-creation of a white artist. The men in my work are a collective family. We share in collective queer trauma. While I can empathize with the inequities of my gay community, I also recognize the boundary of discrimination for others. I can however use my privilege. I can speak to the racism and transphobia within the gay community by incorporating that dialogue within the work. The revealing comments I received speak more to our current cultural preoccupations.

 

These tendencies of contemporary life illuminate why we need to be offended less, and shy from retreating into a world superseded by emotion, than that of logic and dialogue. Public discourse is more than capable of entreating complexity in uncomfortable viewpoints, so long as we speak with purpose and thought. Art by its nature is pressed to offend as a counterforce to mediocrity. It should not be censured out of fear of infringing sensibilities. It exposes who we are. Language is deceitful. Those gifted with a talent for words can rally the masses. My work is an act without words. It undermines the script we use to govern each other. An apparition of dialogue for us to finally listen.

Dialogue: Photographer Scott Anton and art model Paula Kany by Daniel Kany

The following is a conversation between Solon-based wet-plate photographer Scott Anton and my wife, Paula Kany, who has worked with Scott for years as an art model. Paula isn’t comfortable with the term “model,” and that is probably the inspiration for this entire dialogue. She has found that for many people the word “model” implies someone who plays a passive role without artistic agency. Paula wanted me to come to her shoots with two different photographers who use the collodion process — James Wigger, a studio photographer in New York as well as Scott — so I could see what was happening for myself both in terms of the wet plate process and her “modeling.” I came to see that she was a full partner in the artistry and the ultimate content of the work. That said, I think viewers ultimately see the work differently with a shifting balance between focusing on the work of the photographer and identifying with the figures in the image. In film, most Americans identity more with the actors rather than the directors or writers; and I think this effect is echoed with photography to a certain extent. Of course, presentation matters: If you go to see a show of Joyce Tenneson’s photography, for example, it’s made clear that the photographer is the artist of note. But we aren’t always (not even usually) presented with photography as authored by an artist: In our daily lives, the main ingredient of photography is what is pictured — not who is behind the camera. This is a vast and subtle subject without a singular truth; and what we find in this dialogue is that even people who work closely together have different perspectives.

Scott Anton’s collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany and Gemma Hudgell.

Scott uses the photographic technique known as the wet plate collodion process that was invented in 1851 and came, by the end of the 1860s, to replace the daguerreotype as the standard photographic process until it was replaced by the silver gelatin process in the 1880s. The collodion process involves coating and sensitizing a glass or metal plate (using a soluble iodide and a solution of collodion — cellulose nitrate) and then exposing and developing the plate all within about a 15 minute period. This small window necessitates either working in the studio or creating a portable darkroom. (Scott, a farmer, will even use the front of his tractor as a portable darkroom.) And it makes it a labor intensive but dynamic and immediate process.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

It struck me that the technical aspects of the plate preparation, exposure and developing necessarily took place in the presence of the model at the shoot. During this entire process, Paula was fully engaged with both photographers: The dialogue was continuous. This was particularly interesting to me because I play in rock bands: Dialogue is a huge part of the group creative process, but it is not possible during performance.

The following are snippets from a conversation that took place in August, 2018.

Paula: Scott and I talk about what we’re going to do before we get together, but it’s hardly set in stone. Because we work outside with natural light, we can’t always do what we’ve been planning to do. Sometimes there is a great deal of investment in the setup; and then we couldn’t do what we wanted simply because of the light.

Scott: The planning is important. Paula shows up with props and ideas; but it is the friendship that makes it so much better. I get these moods and I always have an idea of what I want to do; but every model is different and I work off the emotions of the model – their life. Models like Paula come to me because of my talent as a wet plate artist. But I like to incorporate Paula’s feelings even more than her props. That may be what she has going on that month, that week, that day or that year. Trust matters, but it has to do with being able to mix with certain people. Sometimes you don’t have a connection, and that just doesn’t work for me.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

P: We don’t necessarily talk about content when working; we are far more likely to talk about life. I am friends with Scott and his wife Gemma. And this is one of the most important things about our working relationship. We’re not only comfortable with each other, we really enjoy being together.

S: I really like it when you shoot that first plate or two and the discussion kicks in. You get that image in the water (which is what brings out the image on the plate) and that is when the feedback comes and the dialogue starts for real. I like that. When you critique the work in real time, that is when you move forward. Some models don’t even look at the image in the fix. I can’t work with them.

P: Scott is more classic than some of the other wet plate photographers with whom I work. By “classic,” I mean that he has a narrative sense that fits older themes and art forms like painting or nineteenth century photography. I tend to like darker themes than he does. And sometimes he wants to do things for which I wouldn’t be the best model. What’s awesome, though, is that we always wind up in the same working space. I think we both adjust in different ways to what the other one has in mind.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

S: I like the banter that goes on with the models; there is not a lot of quiet time, and that’s really important for me. There is always a lot of joking; so every moment is open for comment, so, yeah, Paula or any of my models can give input pretty naturally. I think the ideas are mostly mine, although my ideas almost never come out how I plan. But it almost always works. If it veers off on another angle, I go with it. And I think that’s the way it should be; I might want to do something but Paula is not in the mood. That would make it change direction.

P: Over time, I have gotten more and more involved. For example, I like to go into Scott’s barn and find props – I like weird things, like the bull horn cutter. I am particularly drawn to the things I don’t recognize that have wild shapes. Some of these old farm tools are scary. They’re exciting. They fascinate me and I think that comes through in the pictures.

S: I generally have an idea I want to follow. But stories need props and sometimes the story comes together when we’re talking about props and what to do with them.

P: I think that Scott approaches the content of his work through the idea of storytelling. The stories aren’t necessarily full and complete stories, but there is the sense of narrative, the idea of motivation, that something is going on. That’s important and it’s generally where we come together. Someone looking at the pictures doesn’t need to follow the story; it’s enough to know that something is going on. And I like that sense of mystery. Especially with the old format of collodion. If you sense a story, it feels like you’re getting a fragment of something lost. And I think that’s exciting. It certainly is for me.

Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.

S: My goal is to find where the emotional state of the model lines up with the story I am trying to tell. I want the picture to feel authentic. When the feelings are real, the picture looks real.  Being true to the emotional state of the model is probably more important to me than the story. But when I work with Paula, it is very much about the story; I really don’t think about the viewer, I want to tell that story. Sometimes that means I have a look I want but I can’t get it with collodion. So we work around it.

P: I think Scott doesn’t really want to show me as an older model. But I am okay being seen as an older woman, mother figure, or even someone who is sad or crazy. That elicits a different response than seeing a posed beautiful woman. I didn’t start modeling until I was about 45 and part of what inspired me was the idea of seeing older women as models. Scott and I are still trying to figure that out, which I think is good; it makes him step out of his comfort zone. I like to think that makes him go new places with his work.

S: Maybe. Every model I work with is different. It matters to me how I relate to each model as well as what kind of a mood they’re in. Because of that, my work is always different.

P: I have been struggling with the term “model.” What I do is part performance, part art-directing, part acting. I don’t know if there is a better word than “model,” but I think that to a lot of people it conveys something passive. And my role in the process is anything but passive. I really enjoy being involved in the process: applying the collodion, putting the plates in the bath and so on.

S: The technical part of the process is not something I do with the models in general. That’s just you, since we’ve worked together for a few years. And with you, that’s an important part of the whole process — when we develop the work and see what we get. But, yeah, once we get a couple of pictures, that’s when things really start happening.

P: Because the wet plate process takes so long — the shot itself usually takes between 8 and 15 seconds — you have to be able to hold the pose. That’s why I don’t smile; it’s really hard to hold. And because of that, you almost never see anyone smiling in wet plate pictures, so it would look out of place if I did it. We did one recently and it looked more crazy than pretty. Also, because you have to hold the poses longer, it takes more forethought than digital. You have to get the pose right before the shot. Sometimes that means I have to hold a pose for 5 or even 10 minutes or longer while we get the setting, lighting and props all settled.

S: Sometimes you don’t like what you see in the water (the plate as it develops in the bath) and I say I am going to scrape it off, but then, after some time — an hour, a day, a week — you wind up loving it. Expectations can be limiting. Sometimes it takes time to shake them off. Digital is so predictable, but there is nothing predictable about wet plate. That’s why I like it.

 

The Appearance of Things: Jocelyn Lee Dreams a World of Women — Edgar Allen Beem

One of the clichés of art appreciation is that a work of art must speak for itself, but that is only true to a point. The knowledge that we bring to a viewing greatly determines what the work of art says to us. The way an artist thinks about her work does not have to be controlling, but it is usually helpful and insightful. Just so a two hour conversation with Jocelyn Lee.

As a fine art photographer, art educator and proprietor of a not-for-profit gallery space, Jocelyn Lee has established herself as one of the most important photographers working in Maine in the 21st century. Though I had a chance to write about her body of work Portraits of Women and Girls briefly in Photo District News in 2014, I had been waiting for an opportunity to engage with the artist and her art in more depth and her major exhibition, The Appearance of Things, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (June 16-October 14) provided that opportunity for dialogue.

Jocelyn Lee at CMCA gallery talk with Edward Earle.

The Appearance of Things was a novel exhibition, or perhaps even a novel of an exhibition, featuring some 40 of Jocelyn Lee’s gorgeous chromogenic prints, saturated in color, full of images of flowers, fruit and females, all presented in constellations of prints hung against gallery walls as dark as the night sky and the unconscious mind. Though some of the images are drawn from Lee’s archive, the exhibition was not a retrospective, rather it was an edited selection of work old and new that amounted to a poetic, feminine narrative of the human life cycle, women and girls, flora and fruit in bud and bloom and decay.

“The show is not about individual identity but rather the shared material truth of all living things,” says Lee. “I tried to blend and overlap all the genres–portrait, still-life and landscape – to describe the continuum of the sensual world and our place, as human beings, in it. It’s about life cycles, the Buddhist concept of samsara: the unending cycles of birth, death and rebirth, that are almost like a dream. It is also about perception and our ability to know and make meaning of the world, based on our sensory apparatuses: eyes, skin, nose, ears, sense of touch and nervous system. We understand the world because we apprehend it through our senses. ”

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

The path to photography

I first saw a preview of The Appearance of Things at Speedwell Projects, Lee’s non-profit gallery in the Woodfords Corner section of Portland, and it was there that I got to sit down with her for a few hours in August.

Jocelyn Lee, 56, carries herself with the grace of an athlete though her dark-rimmed glasses can give her an academic look. Indeed, she is an artist, an athlete, an activist and an academic. Born in 1962 in Naples, Italy, where her father was employed at the time, she grew up in Larchmont, New York. She comes by her athleticism as a birthright, her father having been an All-American basketball player at Yale, one good enough to be drafted by the New York Knicks and to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She comes by her activist streak by way of her mother, a pioneer in the hospice movement as well as in promoting the Equal Rights Amendment.

Lee came by her devotion to art, however, only by overcoming parental resistance to such an impractical calling. Though she first discovered and fell in love with photography at Mamaroneck High School, she was recruited to Colgate University as a diver. It didn’t take long, however, before Lee realized she was more interested in creating than in competing.

After dropping out of Colgate, Lee took a year off to redirect and focus on art making and dance. She took photography courses at the State University of New York in Purchase for a year before enrolling at Yale to study philosophy and studio art. As an undergraduate at Yale, she managed to sit in on graduate courses and crits, the Yale MFA program being one of the country’s premier photography programs.

“I sat in on all the graduate photography critiques, all the sculpture critiques and the painting critiques,” recalls Lee. “Yale gave me a chance to meet people who had made the decision to commit their life’s work to being an artist. I did not come from a family where this was even in our vocabulary.”

In addition to photography, Lee studied modern dance at Yale and, after graduation in 1986, she moved to New York City where she studied with pioneering choreographer Erick Hawkins, who danced with and was briefly married to Martha Graham.

“Being a dancer and a diver is about one’s body and space, and understanding living form,” says Lee. “My photography work is so sculptural and form-based that, although no one ever makes this connection, I think it is deeply rooted in my history with dance and diving.”

Lee had progressed to the point where she might have become a member of a dance company when she had an epiphany that propelled her in a different direction.

“A turning point for me was one day while I was walking the street of New York City,” she explains, “and it occurred to me that as a dancer I would be the tool for someone else’s creativity. As much as I loved the Hawkins’ technique as a dance form and practice, I didn’t love his choreography. It was a pivotal realization. I made the decision right then to go back to school for an MFA.”

Because she was working in New York as an assistant to British artist, writer and photographer John Coplans, a founding editor of Artforum, and because she had already experienced Yale, Lee enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College, which at the time was under the influence of post-modernism groupthink, the new orthodoxy that valued ideas over images, concept over craft.

“If Hunter gave me one thing,” says Lee, “it made me clear about what I wanted to do because I had to defend myself every day. I became very strong, but it was a fight.”

Initially, Lee went down a documentary path, pursuing a self directed project on teen-age parents in Boston and Texas, which led to being invited by Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles to photograph teenagers for the book The Youngest Parents (1997).

“I’m really interested in people and making psychological portraits,” says Lee, “but after doing the teen parents photographs I realized I didn’t want to do documentary photography. I was more interested in the poetic than a rigorously truth-based genre. I also felt very restricted and responsible to the subjective truth of the subject – the story they wanted to tell was not the story I wanted to tell.”

The road to Maine

Having taken courses at the Maine Photographic Workshop and having been a summer visitor to Maine, Lee jumped at the chance to teach at Maine College of Art after she graduated from Hunter in 1992. What began as a one-year sabbatical replacement position turned into a nine-year stint at MECA (1993-2001) after which she taught at Princeton University (2003-2012).

In Maine, the landscapes became Lee’s studio and she made the switch from black and white to color. The colors in some of Lee’s photographs are so visceral and rich that they seem to bleed color. And in a digital age, she is still married to film. Though she owns a Leica digital camera, she primarily shoots with a medium-format Mamiya RB 67 and a Mamiya 7, creating images that she outputs on a large Epson printer at Speedwell projects.

“I don’t like the way it [the Leica] represents the world,” says Lee of her preference for film. “The world that I capture with my camera has been consistent, because the lens on the world has been consistent.”

Lee values the deliberate, laborious technology of film over the instant gratification of digital imagery.

“The thing that struck me about photography at 17 was that it was a way for me to slow the world down so I could think about the nature of the world,” she says. “The world just went too fast for my sensibility.”

When I tell Jocelyn Lee that I signed many copies of my 1990 book Maine Art Now with the words, “The work of art is the search for meaning,” she gets goosebumps. The only way I understand art is as a form of personal and philosophical inquiry, every bit as rigorous and fact-finding as science”. And that is how Lee practices her art.

“This is really about me trying to make sense of the world” Lee says. “I tell my students that art is how you make meaning in the world. It is an investigation. It’s about what matters to you, not about making pretty pictures.”

The mother of two, Lee lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband Brian Urquhart. While she is privileged to show and sell her photographs at Pace/McGill Gallery in New York City and Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam, she is well aware that the vast majority of fine artists struggle to find a venue and an audience. It was for that reason that she and her husband purchased the large building at 630 Forest Avenue in Portland which had previously housed a stained glass studio and turned it into Speedwell projects.

Since Speedwell projects opened in 2016, the gallery has presented exhibitions and events related to such challenging topics as mental illness, gay love, our throw-away society, empowering women, the abstract interface of music and art, and a cadre of poets speaking and reading in response to the 2017 presidential inaugural.

“We created Speedwell Projects so we could show the work of artists who are under-represented,” Lee explains. “First we thought we would focus on later career artists, but now we feature emerging artists as well as mature artists and artists who have experimental bodies of work. We want to do whatever we can to help artists get to the next step.”

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

The Appearance of Things

Jocelyn Lee’s The Appearance of Things was exhibited at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London in April and May and was previewed at Speedwell projects before its four-month run at CMCA. A catalogue with an essay by Bill Roorbach is in the works.

The preponderance of female figures young and old and the sumptuousness of the floral still-life photographs, some created by Lee floating her wedding bouquets in a tub of water, make it easy to overlook the fact that there are no male figures in the exhibition. When men do appear in Lee’s photographs they tend to be older males, often pot-bellied and bearded, men of an age to have dropped the macho armor to allow themselves to be sensitive and vulnerable. Lee’s penchant for older men may owe a bit of a debt to John Coplans, who is famous for photographing his own body as a study in aging.

Jocelyn Lee belongs to a new wave of photographers, in particular women artists, who are redefining and challenging cultural norms about the lives of women. Her images of women and girls are part of a contemporary photo-dialogue that includes the work of artists such as Sally Mann, Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland and Catherine Opie. Lee’s photographs of Rubenesque women and older women subvert conventional notions of female beauty.

“I think they are beautiful in the deepest sense,” says Lee of the women she chooses to photograph. “If there is anything political in my work it is showing all body types, people who are at peace with their bodies and who have a real connection to the earth. It’s a radical acceptance of the human condition, a radical empathy.”

The male gaze is lustful, seeing the female body as a thing of sexual pleasure. The female gaze is more respectful, able to see the female body as sensual without reducing it to a sexual object.

The Appearance of Things then was a sensory experience of the feminine imagination, images untitled and unnumbered free floating in the dark space of Jocelyn Lee’s subconscious. Though she prescribed no sequence to the images, now one way of seeing, Lee herself knew where the exhibition beings and ends.

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

“It ends with an image of my mother with her eyes closed,” she says, referring to a photograph of her late mother sitting, eyes closed, against a simple landscape horizon, her body against the green earth, her head in the milky white sky, “almost as though she has dreamt this world.”

No, exactly as if she had dreamt this world.

(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer in Brunswick. He has been writing about the Maine art scene since 1978.)

Michael Mansfield by Sarah Bouchard

Not all artists can afford a traditional, daily studio practice. For some, the studio is a state of mind entered into on the drive home after a long day packed with professional obligations. These artists make exceptional work while maintaining an alternate identity – be it teacher, parent, janitor, or doctor. For Michael Mansfield, that identity is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.

Michael Mansfield, Hummingbird, moving image, continuous, 2008

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to view Mansfield’s personal artwork – a series of small, intricate video pieces cleanly framed in white and hung on the wall. At first glance, one of the pieces appears to be looped, hand-drawn footage of a hummingbird, its underside exposed to the camera. In another work, a flock of birds fly in and out of a cluster of reeds. Their movement is hypnotic.

I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his work, his remarkable career history (which includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), as well as his vision for the Ogunquit Museum. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on Mansfield’s work as an artist. The full interview will appear in the July issue of The Bollard.

Were there any pivotal moments that pointed you toward the arts as a potential career path or passion?

I studied architecture and art history in my first year as an undergrad and quickly realized that the engineering side of architecture was less interesting to me. I was more interested in its visual presentation, mostly through photography, so I chose to study photography. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any exposure to art. I grew up in East Texas. Other than looking at occasional magazines with black-and-white photographs, I didn’t have any access to visual storytelling.

Michael Mansfield, Untitled (aerial view), c-print, 48 x 52 in., 2006

Did travel inform your way of being?

Yes. There is a great tradition in Texas of environmental photography and street photography, Gary Winogrand and George Krause. I was encouraged by the professors I had at the University of Houston to go out in the world with a camera, make images and bring them back to see if they worked. I received grants to travel domestically and abroad to make photographs. I also had a number of paying jobs to do editorial work, which made me better at composing an image. I was working in color photography and black-and-white photography and digital photography and then eventually in video and filmmaking all at once, so I made a pretty wide mess of work.

Were you showing that work?

I was. I had a number of little published projects. I was showing the work in galleries, little student-run spaces, and small community spaces.

Primarily that was street photography and landscape photography?

Yes. I was really focused on the changing nature of street photography, and just having a camera and being a part of something.

Michael Mansfield, Untitled (train car), gelatin silver print, 8×10 in., 2004

How did you move from street photography to your most recent body of work?

The program I was in for undergrad was photography and digital media. It was the first program of its kind, in the ‘90s, at the college level, that combined traditional photography and digital media. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who ran it, were a collaborative called MANUAL. They produced a lot of work that married traditional and digital media and, as students, we had access to some pretty high-tech equipment. I began looking at digital images and how they were composed for computers using Photoshop and layers, and when I left college, that didn’t leave me. I kept working with it. I began working with desktop-publishing video programs. I was making films and then scanning them in and editing them digitally and I was also taking photographs and animating them through the same editing process.

Michael Mansfield, Re Gull, moving image, continuous, 2012

I realize you can’t break apart the technical from the conceptual, but that all sounds very technical.

It was more about trying to find a way to extend an image in time. The photograph was a finite moment. Working photographically, I was often looking at contact sheets. I would shoot 50 rolls of film and produce 50 contact sheets and then see those images in sequence and see how an event unfolded over time. I realized that there were really beautiful limitations to that single image I was trying to create, and once I arrived at that composition, I wanted to expand the image into time. It was a single photograph, but I wanted it to exist for a bit longer. I was really into the persistence of an image, or how one thing stays in your mind for a period of time, and how that informs your association with that object or that event, even though it’s only recognized as 1/25th of a second, or less. Taking that single instance, and then blowing it up and being able to examine it from multiple angles, seeing how I might elaborate on my understanding of what that image was. The work that I produce now is often created from parts of smaller images. It is very technical but my reasoning behind it is much more conceptual. The technology allows me to make the work. It enables me to extend that moment of a single image into something much longer.

Were there any specific concepts or questions you were pursuing that have found their way into your curatorial efforts?

Yes. I’ve always been interested in the artist’s relationship to their material and how that material provides both insight into the contemporary moment, and is also a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, that we can receive a bit of technology that was created for one purpose and then imagine something new from it. Artists have always engaged the latest technologies that are available to them – as painters and sculptors and artists working with more traditional media as equally as artists working with more contemporary media. The role that industry and technology and commerce played in early American modernism can be easily identified in the work you see from that period just by the composition. It is enlightening about what the moment really meant, both to them, then, and to us, now. In the work I’m making, I am seeing the same approach to technology resulting in works that open our eyes to something new, just as was happening 150 years ago.

Michael Mansfield, Prime Reeds (detail), moving image, continuous, 2012

You’re primarily using technology to focus, visually, on nature, which is interesting.

It’s true. I was working in an urban environment a lot, and I always found inspiration in the landscape. I suppose it’s not unlike artists who left the cities and urban areas in the 1880’s. I was encountering the wilderness in a different way and trying to find what that meant. I would take a single image of a rare bird in New Zealand, or in Utah, and then create a world around that single image so I could expand my one experience with that bird. I have a photograph of a North American Red-Headed Blackbird that I took just outside of Ogden, Utah, with a field of reeds in the background. I had a single instance of that bird, but it was not complete, he was hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t really see him, so I did quite a bit of research into Red-Headed Blackbirds and images of Red-Headed Blackbirds. Then, I constructed him from information I was able to find online, digitally, and embedded him into an image that I could then expand in time into a virtual world. I could recreate his existence and allow him to live a fuller life, something more meaningful that would last longer and be more consequential than just a single photograph.

Michael Mansfield, Prime Reeds, moving image, continuous, 2012

Does your experience as an artist impact your work as a curator and museum director?

I hope it does. I like to think that my experience as an artist makes me more sensitive to the struggles artists go through, especially when I’m in a position to support their work. I know how hard it is to carve out a living as an artist and how much sacrifice and determination and willpower and luck it requires. I hope this informs my conversations with artists. I hope it makes me a better listener and a better champion for the work they’re doing.

What about exhibition design?

I rely quite a bit on my experience as an artist. Helping an artist realize their vision in space within the confines of the gallery is not an easy task and the work that an artist is doing in the studio doesn’t always translate to a gallery space very simply.

You stopped showing your work in 2009 to avoid conflicts within your professional career. To me, that carries a hint of tragedy, but I can see the upside if this decision resulted in a kind of openness to explore concepts and make work without the pressure of the public eye.

It’s true. I have to admit that in  one sense, it’s a huge relief that I’m not under the same scrutiny as an artist, that I’m not at risk in the same way as an artist. I’m able to let go of that work, and I don’t have to take the risk of putting it in front of people. I like the privacy this affords me. I get to work out of the spotlight without any of the competition or conflicts or consequence of rejection. But, what I miss the most is the feedback … making work and having a conversation about it. The discourse around what’s important, what’s meaningful, and relevant.