Photography’s impact on our perception of the world is not news. Yet a constant stream of images flows past us with little consideration. At Presentation House Gallery, curators Helga Pakasaar and Reid Shier present the work of 15 artists to explore the impact of photography and photographic techniques on visual experience. Inspired by phantasmagoria, an early 19th-century term used to describe both a magic-lantern installation and a series of real or imagined images, the exhibition examines the phantasmagoric effect brought on by modern technology. “Phantasmagoria” maintains a critical distance from the enticing reality of digital photography, instead highlighting artistic intervention in the creation of images and understanding.
Three faded sepia-toned photographs stand out. Two of Raymond Boisjoly‘s photographic documents appear to be weathered prints of gas stations and the third is difficult to discern. However, all are actually sun-exposed construction-paper prints-products of one of the first analog photographic techniques.
Jessica Eaton‘s cfaal 109 is an inkjet print of misaligned blocks created directly on film inside a 4-by-5 camera. The intensely saturated colours shift and warp the broken-down grid, making the work difficult to look at. The effect is unsettling as the viewer’s eyes struggle to adjust.
Evan Lee’s three collages also play with the viewer’s vision. Maquette for Phoropter Collage 1, 2 and 3 are each assembled from images of phoropter machines, which are used to test eyesight. From hundreds of small fragments, Lee assembles new images of phoropters. Instead of testing vision, he tests the viewer’s ability to discern between fragments which are pieced back together to form a collaged phoropter.
Andrew Dadson‘s Black Light, consisting of 144 fluorescent lights covered with black paint, lets off an intense, humid heat. The lacquer coating on each light cracks off in small spots, resulting in a night-sky effect. The work shifts between the real and the imagined as its size and heat overwhelm the viewer, yet the constant hum and specks of light reveal the materiality of this sky.
Addressing the infinite possibilities available through digital photography, “Phantasmagoria” extends beyond the physical constraints of the gallery space, presenting two Internet-based works accessible via the Presentation House website. Jay Bundy Johnson’s Free is a continually growing archive of images made up of photographed objects that have been offered at no cost in the classifieds section of Craigslist. Bundy’s archive highlights the vast amount of what most would consider waste available for free—a phenomenon that parallels the availability and content of digital photography. Kevin Schmidt’s online archive The End of the World is a capstone that gathers images of homemade doomsday signs. Over the course of the exhibition, Schmidt will continue contributing to the work, and he invites other to add to it as well.
As an exhibition, “Phantasmagoria” invites the viewer to take a step back from photographic images to examine their still-increasing influence on visual experience. Each work reveals the experimentation at play in its creation, highlighting each artist’s use of photographic techniques. The resulting exhibition creates not a phantasmagoric reverie, but a challenge to the viewer to discern between the real and imagined worlds around us.