All the Silences Between Us

Sept 14 - Oct 27, 2007
Hudson Franklin Gallery
New York, New York

The notion of familiarity conjures up a feeling of sustainable silence, so it seems no coincidence that the term also shares an etymological root with family. What does it mean, after all, for two consciousnesses (or more) to share a room, a home, a life? Aren't the unspoken and unheard undeniable mainstays? In Yolanda del Amo's large-format double portraits, which are a part of her ongoing series "Archipelago," that domestic silence—whether between partners, husband and wife, or mother and child—is our point of entry, functioning both as psychic space and as constructed narrative. To wit, silence can palpably enact a gulf between one couple ("Rafael, Maria Jesús") as readily as it can comfort and intimacy between another ("Winfried, Brigitte").

Though often somber, del Amo's images manage a surprising lightness in their visual register; like early Eric Rohmer or David Hockney, they are serenely elusive, revealing their power all the more slowly for this ambiguity. The nonspecific is her emporium of possibility, so it makes sense, then, that we can't quite pinpoint the locations of her scenes or the nationalities of her subjects. We may be able to surmise that most of these portrait subjects are European or South American in sensibility—their appearance, dress, and décor choices, for instance—but we cannot say for sure. Instead, we must revel in the universal about these figures and their predicaments, which are recognizable as overtly and scrupulously staged scenes.

As Wayne Koestenbaum wrote of Karen Kilimnik, "Simulacrum is her true medium." So with del Amo, whose subjects all possess an air of anticipatory self-consciousness in their expressions and stances. They are aware of being watched; they are waiting to be captured. Indeed, they are subjects not only aware of their status as subject but also of their status as actor. They appear to participate in a Pinter-esque silence, in which stillness and reticence have replaced drama and dialogue. We can't help but read the indoor and outdoor spaces where we find these characters as existential stages where a theater of interiority is being played and the spare handful of elements populating these stages (a hairdryer, chairs, wineglasses), by extension, their props.

Staged photography typically acknowledges both the artifice inherent in the medium and our media-indulged reality-that is, to live in the age of mass media is to be vulnerable to the panoply of moods and projections affected by ever-present entertainment, information, and stimuli. We are destined to see ourselves—at least, when we narrate our lives to ourselves—as third-persons before a hypothetical camera. Psychological studies have even shown as much. At the same time—and perhaps more aptly to del Amo's work—staged photography jettisons the notion of the moment, which is implicit in the medium, since staged subjects are in their positions well before the shutter is released and for a short time thereafter as well. What gets foregrounded, then, is not the captured image in time but the image itself, freed of the assumptions of today's snapshots and digital photos.

In some sense then, the staged approach necessarily gestures toward the past and invokes the nostalgic. Images such as "Claudia, Peter, Luna" hearken back to 19th-or early-20th-century portrait photography, or even painted portraiture, in which well-to-do subjects could afford to be arranged and seated in their homes for the purposes of posterity. But del Amo ups the ante on the genre by aiming for a meticulous, even implausible perfectionism in hers-furniture so spare and clean you are tempted to lick it, and a composition that brings the off-camera Peter, whom Claudia regards from the floor, into the picture by way of a long mirror behind her. In such an exacting setup, deliberation trumps intuition, and the figures approach the abstract, especially Peter, whose body is halved by the mirror. The room here sheds its ostensible function as domestic interior and becomes primarily a psychological extension of Claudia and Peter's relationship.

Del Amo achieves similar effects in outdoor settings by choosing spaces that are contained and beautifully kept. In "Amanda, Jimmy," new mother Amanda sits primly but dejectedly on a park bench under well-trimmed greenery, a good distance away from her baby's stroller. The park is an apt choice for del Amo's purposes, since it gestures at the natural but is inherently artificial. That we can't see the child in this image, only his carriage, squares with that paradox: What is a double portrait with only one person in view? Here, the notion of relationship—specifically between mother and child—is almost entirely subverted, since collectively we hold onto an expectation that motherhood, even in modernity, redefines a woman against her child. But the choreographing of this image implies that motherhood is a role to be played like any other, not a categorical transformation. Suffice it to say, even after a miracle, we may still be the same characters in our banal dramas, subject to isolation, disappointment, and Baudelairean ennui.

Del Amo, who in the past has played with the juxtaposition of text and image as both dialogue and narrative, is a natural storyteller, but she is not interested necessarily in capturing a ready fiction we will respond to. Instead, her images build and sustain an atmosphere of inquiry and ambiguity. When we leave these images, we may venture to supply a pair of intertwined stories that could be spun backwards and forwards in time, rich and sumptuous in their possibilities.