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Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Big Picture 24

Toronto photographer Michael Chambers has never shied away from controversy.

An exhibit at Harbourfront in February, entitled The Sandbox, contained a space for children to make photographs and describe how they were viewed by their friends and teachers. It brought many parents to tears, especially parents who had no idea that their seemingly happy kids had already been exposed to the nastiness of being treated as an other.

Chambers’s newest works, on display at the O’Connor Gallery, mine similar terrain by asking the viewer to look at a wide variety of human forms encased in a constricting yet oddly welcoming box. Chambers describes these intentionally contradictory images as “ways to see the human body within a frame, a space that allows both limited and limitless readings”.

And sexy ones too. Few photographers love the human body as much as Chambers, who apparently has never met a model/subject he didn’t adore. Chambers’s gorgeous visions of real people and real bodies - bodies treated with the same attention and regard given to supermodels - are a welcome sight after a long winter spent packing on fat, wearing three jackets and fighting off Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“The box series,” Chambers tells me, “really started about 10 years ago, with me placing a model in the box and realizing that the box came already heaped with metaphors - in both directions, because we impose metaphors on ourselves and too often leave our actual selves out of the mix.”

“The thing to remember is that we have control of how we present ourselves on all levels, which I’ve been saying with my works for years. And yet, we live inside and outside these perceptive boxes. Being “boxed in” is something we react to and also can’t entirely function without. That’s why so many of my subjects look very comfortable in what is a very uncomfortable situation.”
How Chambers started photographing subjects in boxes is one of those happy accident stories that make the art world go ‘round.

“I had a show in Montreal, and came back with this huge box I couldn’t get into my studio. Showing in Montreal was the first time I was felt appreciated in this country, the first time I didn’t think about throwing away my camera . .. so, I became obsessed with this box and what it signified, which was not giving up.”

“Naturally, I started asking friends to hop in too - but because I couldn’t get the damned thing in my studio, I had to take photos in the hallway, had to sneak nude models around my building. I think in some ways this gave the works a real sense of fragility, because I literally had models running around my hallway in towels.”

“The surprising thing was that many of the subjects found it comforting to enter the box - about 80 percent. And not just because they were nude and looking for a place to hide. They found it very safe because when you are in the box you have no peripheral vision.”
Even the claustrophobics?

“Well, some people felt entrapped. That’s why I included people from as many cultures as possible, to mix up the diversity of the responses. Eventually, even people who were at first uncomfortable started tumbling around like kids. People became very candid once they were in the box, very trusting.”

I admit to Chambers that my first impressions upon viewing a person confined in a box are not entirely positive. Boxes, after all, are where you put dead people, and, to be topical, the Americans have reportedly taken to tucking Iraqi captives into small crates. Add in the fact that many of Chambers’s models are men of colour, and a slew of oppression metaphors pops into my head. Is the political subtext intentional?

Chambers pauses. He’s heard this question before.

“When I was studying at York, I had issues with how I saw blacks portrayed in photography. Some of the images were degrading or stereotypical, but also blacks were not photographed with attention to how black skin appears on film. I wanted black models to reflect light as well, to work against all the metaphors for darkness.”

“Secondly, I wanted to see images of someone like myself treated with the same normality that white models are treated with, as representations of the human race. But I admit that interpretation is all about context. You can see a black man in a box and think about the history of blacks in North America … but when those images were shown in Japan, people thought of Hiroshima!”

“I’ve always said that people will interpret based on their own history, so people should let their interpretations take them on a journey. It’s ok to ask questions.”

~

On the other side of the photographic spectrum are Mark Ruwedel’s stark and haunting images of western Canadian landscapes – mountains and valleys pillaged by the building of the transcontinental railroad. If Michael Chambers is a humanist searching for the sweet inner lives of his subjects, Ruwedel is an archaeologist searching for nasty messes left behind by our ambitions.

This is definitely bleak work, but in a fascinating way. Ruwedel photographs the split hills and ravaged (but slowly healing) forests as if he were a photojournalist covering a war (or an apocalypse). The dark, knife-sharp rocks that line the crevasses are straight out of Tolkien’s Mordor, and the long stretches of wind blasted, broken track could easily be the fabled canals of Mars.

I’m not sure I’d want to own one of these photos (I am keenly aware of the folly of human endeavour - a.k.a. my career), but I have to hand it to any photographer who so unflinchingly captures our national romance’s scarred underbelly.

~

I am not a psychiatrist, but I’ve been to many – so I feel qualified to opine that painter Andrew Rucklidge has suffered a nervous breakdown (or, as one shrink taught me to say, “nervous breakthrough”).

Rucklidge used to be such a gentlemanly painter. His early landscapes and storm-tossed skies were painted with a 19th century fastidiousness and a loving fidelity to nature. One imagined Rucklidge at his studio, pipe in mouth, fussing over the exact shade of blue for a 4pm sky, the right brown for an April mud.

Well, that’s all gone to hell. Rucklidge’s fantastic new exhibition of mixed media panels is a riotous barrage of wide trowel swipes, aggressive ink smears, pretty rainbows (yikes!), scratched-on stars and space ships, and enough fibrous texture to fill a breakfast bowl.

I love surprises.


Michael Chambers
The Box
O’Connor Gallery 97 Maitland Street Until April 2

Mark Ruwedel
Westward
Stephen Bulger Gallery 1026 Queen Street West Until April 2

Andrew Rucklidge
New Works
Angell Gallery 890 Queen Street West Until April 2