Strange Narratives Unfold in ‘Spinning Yarns: Photographic Storytellers’

Jason DeMarte, Cream Filled (from Utopia) - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Jason DeMarte, Cream Filled (from Utopia)

There are fuzzy, house-shaped monsters hiding under bedroom furniture, a shadowy ghoul stalking a redheaded gentleman and modern torture devices shown in the exhibition “Spinning Yarns: Photographic Storytellers,” on view at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum through August 3. Curated by Anne Leighton Massoni and Libby Rowe, the traveling show builds upon the idea of narrative storytelling through the photograph.

Throughout “Spinning Yarns,” photographers construct scenes compressing multiple elements into singular and multiple images to tell stories. This practice dates way back in art history and has its influences most notably in the 18th century. Think of it this way: You take the most momentous part of your favorite film, the moment that decides which way the plot will move (like in 300 when King Leonidas kicks the messenger into the pit), and you paint that moment. You paint the guy flying backwards, the King’s cloak flowing behind him, the other guards slaughtering all of the messenger’s party, and you focus on this one moment in time.

Many of the artists in the exhibition employ this form of tableau photography, using figures to act out a story. The use of the figure allows for the viewer to be a bit more reflexive in how they approach the work. We are quite comfortable these days with deciphering stories and themes with people in them. Take Andy Bloxham’s Beta 34 (2008). Here we have a frightened, redheaded young man, hiding from what appears to be a ghoulish zombie version of Christopher “Kid” Reid with his high-top fade haircut. This scene fills the viewer with anxiety of all the things that go bump in the night. The dramatic lighting highlights the two important elements within the photograph, Bloxham (the redhead in question) and the shadowy figure. All else in the scene is superfluous from the packing peanuts to the dumpster. The story is about the fear our protagonist is feeling at the moment the image was made.

The story is told and we understand—the Sandman will come for us all.

Ashley Feagin, on the other hand, takes a slightly different tack in constructing narratives; she shows body parts representative of the whole scene. In Being Martha (2010), Feagin delivers us a view of the kitchen floor, covered in white flour, a white eggshell cracked where it fell, a pair of white high-heeled shoes, female legs obscured by falling flour and a white knee-length dress with a green and lacy apron that comes to the top right edge of the frame. Feagin tells the viewer a tale of perfection shattered, the striving toward nostalgia and the ever-present disappointment when the actuality falls short of the destination. Her images aren’t discouraging but rather they are whimsical and light. They speak to that which is in us all: the desire for a moment of perfection within a world of chaos.

Feagin, like many of the photographers in “Spinning Yarns,” constructs her narrative around familiar storylines. Co-curator and University of Texas—San Antonio assistant professor Rowe uses our familiarity with the home and the structures we inhabit to bypass narratives in favor of us filling in our own experiences and memories. In Dust to Dust (2008), Rowe reveals the largest dust bunny in history underneath what looks like a dresser. This house-shaped dust bunny could be the key to the whole exhibition. The desire for home and safety, nostalgia and heart permeates the exhibit. The leading lines of the floorboards take us directly into the home’s front door. This isn’t a house we want to enter; it is dirty and full of cat hair and pet dander. But it is a home and the ugly truth about our homes is what makes us want to come back. Rowe is trying to tell us that home is not where the heart is—home is where the desire, the craving, the yearning and our memories take us.

“Spinning Yarns: Photographic Storytellers” builds narratives through the use of symbolism and metaphor. These tableaus range from bears dreaming of Twinkies to the communication between two people with nautical flags. Throughout these images are stories of peril and security, risk and reward, fantasy and reality, all dealing with human desire, need and fear. Imagination or make-believe is best practiced in the home. It is a safe place in which we are allowed to explore the world. I might have created the beast underneath this bed but it is mine to live with and I have named him Bob.

Spinning Yarns: Photographic Storytellers

Noon-8pm Thu, noon-6pm Fri-Sun
Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum
116 Blue Star
(210) 227-6960
Through August 3