Holly Andres, “Behind the Old Painting,” 2007, C-Print at Quality Pictures Contemporary Art.
Nineteen months ago, in a review of a dismal survey of contemporary Portland photography at Clark College, I wrote the following: “Holly Andres, Portland’s most celebrated young photographer, is here with her (very familiar) hyper-posed, artificially lit scenes of pre-adolescent suburban ennui… They’re so stylized that I frequently feel like I’m looking at a Kate Spade ad rather than fine art. Beyond their initial appeal, the photographs, like their sheltered subjects, appear to be trapped in a stylistic black hole of vacuity.” Ungenerous as these sentiments are, I still can’t see clear to retracting them.
Andres’ new show at Quality Pictures, however, has made a believer out of me. In a body of work far more sophisticated and seductive than anything she’s previously exhibited, Andres has harnessed her technical prowess and narrative vision for Sparrow Lane, latest chapter in her ongoing, wordless novel.
Thematically and conceptually, there is little to distinguish Sparrow Lane from Andres’ earlier work. As before, she artfully composes dramatic, domestic tableaux with a decidedly upper-class, feminine flavor: There are lots of snappy retro outfits, vintage porcelain antiques, old-money wallpaper patterns, and bursts of pink. In these storybook settings, three girls—most notably a mesmerizing tween with skin and eyelashes the shade of vellum—explore adolescent and natural mysteries with a degree of artifice that can’t help but allude to post-Crewdson, Yalie theatricality.
What has changed from Andres’ earlier work, however, is the artist’s thoughtful and deliberate use of color, the complexity of her compositions, and her ability to conjure natural performances from her models. In all of these areas, Andres has grown dramatically as an artist, making Sparrow Lane her most rich and satisfying work to date. It’s worth noting, too, that scaling the C prints down from a mounted 40×50” to a handsomely framed 20×24” brings the stories back down to a human level, brings viewers in close for a more intimate reading, and generally returns the focus to the substance, rather than the style, of the images.
Holly Andres, “The Secret Portal,” 2008, C-Print.
Sparrow Lane tells the elliptical tale of three fair-haired adolescent sisters uncovering elusive truths in their perfectly manicured rooms and backyards, where every hesitant gesture holds the promise of transporting the girls from the land of Innocence to that of Experience, and where the threat of an unforeseen authority looms like a Protestant deity.
Set in a typically Andres-ian bedroom of shining hardwoods, daffodil drapes, and twin beds cloaked in pink satin spreads, “The Magic Elixir” is a tense image of duality, transformation, and order. Standing between the two beds, next to a doctor’s housecall bag, one of the older sisters carefully pours herself a spoonful of the titular medicine. As absorbed as she is in her task, the youngest, ghostly girl stands frozen in the foreground, looking genuinely fearful of some force that lies beyond the picture plane. Chillingly, and almost imperceptibly, the child’s reflection in the Victorian looking glass across the room stares back at us, but not in harmony with the turn of the foregrounded girl’s head. Andres has worked with mirrors on many occasion, but here they begin to take on the Hitchockian menace of phantasm.
The late director is also evoked in Andres’ carefully measured use of color, particularly her use of vibrant crimson in the otherwise aquatic-chromed “Behind the Old Painting.” Using softer light than ever before, Andres allows a deeply seductive, long tonal range to emerge from the baroque domestic setting and the model’s costumes. The dark shadows remain richly colored, and the camera’s monocular spatial compression works with the color scheme to create an atmosphere that is at once wholly natural and hyper-real.
Not every image works so well: There is still a heavily mannered lack of dynamism in the static poses of “Outside the Forbidden Bedroom” and “The Glowing Drawer,” but these clunkier images are the exceptions in Sparrow Lane. The exterior scene, “The Lost Mitten” (clearly a crowd favorite) is a marvel of diffused, glowing light, and “The Secret Portal” shows Andres achieving a directorial confidence that’s genuinely exciting.
Until now, I had always lumped Andres into that loathsome, overcrowded mental category: “Good… For Portland.” I found her earlier works relatively well-crafted, informed by contemporary trends, and cloyingly derivative of a million and one New York artists. Today I’m happy to have my mind changed, and proud to call Andres a hometown talent. Sparrow Lane is strong enough to show in any US city, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Andres get a good deal of recognition from this series. These opinions are a good stretch from what I wrote two winters ago, but Andres’ creative vision, craftsmanship, and aesthetic confidence have emerged even farther.
Holly Andres, Sparrow Lane, at Quality Pictures, 916 NW Hoyt, through August 2.