Secrets and Lies
March 26 - May 15, 2011
Many of us loathe being photographed. When a camera is pointing at us we experience a moment of extreme self-awareness and express our resistance by covering our faces, sticking out our tongues, grimacing or closing our eyes.
At the same time there are cultural myths and truisms surrounding photography. We’ve heard that the image captures or steals the soul, or that “the camera never lies.”
Seeking to address some of these ideas, the exhibition Secrets and Lies features thought-provoking and conceptually intriguing photo-based portraits by two renowned Canadian artists: Arthur Renwick’s ongoing series Mask which he began in 2006 and Susan Dobson’s series Rememory dated 2008.
Arthur Renwick’s larger-than-life portraits from his Mask series feature First Nations artists, writers and intellectuals who have had to deal with prevailing stereotypes about their heritage throughout their careers. Gazing into Renwick’s camera they strike poses using facial gestures to express their feelings and thoughts about the history of the lens and its relationship to the stereotypical “Indian.” Looking back at how their indigenous identity has been framed and imprisoned by images and cultural assumptions, they give back to the camera what they received: distorted, masquerading, mocking versions of themselves.
In mainstream photography the main reason for striking a pose in front of a camera is to be captured looking good. Renwick’s images subvert the notion of being photogenic and fitting in. His strategy to overload indigenous stereotypes to the point of absurdity conveys a strong message: “If we aren’t who you think we are, then who are you.” (Richard William Hill)
For her Rememory project, Dobson asked friends, family members, acquaintances and students to participate in a photo shoot that involved sitting in a completely darkened room with their eyes shut, looking inside themselves and recalling a past event of personal significance. Nothing but the flash of the camera illuminated their faces for a split second at a time. Dobson’s studio setting comes close to being a short-term sensory deprivation session which is generally described as relaxing and conducive to meditation. These states of being are mirrored in the faces of the subjects as they are captured by the camera: snapshots of an altered state of consciousness. There is a sculptural quality to the transfixed faces, one might even say that they resemble death masks. What the camera did not capture is the range of feelings that emerge from recalling past events. The individuals’ state of mind remains invisible and therefore a secret. Dobson intentionally never asked them to reveal it.
Visually the two bodies of work represented in this show are in stark contrast to each other: Arthur Renwick’s protagonists stare at you with grimacing and mocking faces, Dobson’s subjects are captured in a state of contemplative withdrawal and don’t look at you at all. Each artist has a distinctive voice yet they share a few common strategies. Both contextualize the past with the present; both involve their subjects in a performance enacted in front of a camera; both go against traditional portraiture and transform their subjects; both share an interest in the human condition.
You, the viewers, are invited to weave the prologue and epilogue of the complex narratives Dobson and Renwick have written with their cameras.
Arthur Renwick is increasingly acknowledged internationally as a First Nations artist. He was born on a Haisla reserve in Kitimat, British Columbia and received his Master of Fine Arts in Photography at Concordia University in Montreal. The National Gallery of Canada purchased his first Mask Series in 2008. Renwick currently lives in Toronto and is presented by the Leo Kamen Gallery.
Susan Dobson was born in Moncton, New Brunswick and received her Master of Fine Arts from the University in Guelph where she currently lives. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally. In 2008 the McDonald Stewart Art Gallery purchased selected works from Rememory for their permanent collection.
Both Renwick and Dobson teach in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph and are past recipients of the K.M. Hunter Artists Award.