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A Real Looker

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Laura Mackin's show at Contemporary Art Workshop is based on "imagery from strangers," she says. "When you find someone's videos or pictures, they seem mysterious at first, and then you wind up imagining the intentions of the people who made them." The origin of this exhibit is a home video she bought at a thrift store while she was an undergrad at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "Rabbits, squirrels, cartoons, etc." was scribbled on the box, and the time-stamping indicated the video had been taken over a 12-day period in 1992. The videographer panned animals in a backyard frenetically; these segments are interspersed with brief interludes, some showing cartoons on TV and others the anonymous video maker himself. She and her friends loved it. "We all thought it was his first day with the camera, his first video--it had that intensity of looking, that pleasure," she says. "He'll be hyperfocused on a particular animal, then cut to something else. He can't seem to hold the camera straight he's so excited."

Mackin returned to the video in 2005, three years after she bought it and shortly after receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute, making drawings from it. Then she copied the video's entire 90 minutes into her computer and began stitching together individual frames--10 to 100 at a time--to create her own "stills." Five of these are on display, plus the whole video on one monitor and an extracted three-minute loop of the video maker on another. Her panoramic composite images show the backyard or branches silhouetted against the sky. The allover textures produced by Mackin's technique create weird landscapes that are even more mysterious than the original video, heightening its fleeting beauty while underlining its inexplicability.

Mackin, who says she tends to be secretive, has been fascinated by anonymity for a while, even though her art-school projects included painting herself, her mother, and her boyfriend, now her husband. "My autobiographical work didn't actually show very much," she says. When she was an undergraduate, a professor prodded his students to become more original by assuming personas, thinking it might distract them from just painting. But Mackin chose to be a workaday artist painting animal portraits for a living. (The instructor was "kind of pissed off," she says.) In general she disliked the art world's quest for newness: "Students talked of trying to conceive of something they hadn't seen before, but the results rarely seemed original." In response she began collecting images from eBay. "I liked that they were trying to show objects for sale in the best way that they could," she says, even when the seller's home was obviously a mess. She became fascinated by the images of mirrors for sale because they showed both the room around the mirror and whatever was reflected in it, yet the spaces remained puzzling. She printed such images in two artist's books, the second of which, Old Mirror Auctions L@@K, is also in this show along with five individual prints of mirrors. Some reveal rooms, others landscapes; one reflects a gravestone, and others faces, a cat, or nude bodies.

Mackin is drawn to puzzles--but not so much to solving them. When she was in her midteens, her parents suspected that her older sister's boyfriend was living in the woods behind their house. Mackin and her father would take long walks, looking for his hideout, peering into a nearby mulch factory and farmers' sheds. But they never talked about the boyfriend or where he might be; instead Mackin's dad would identify trees for her or explain what a particular building or implement was used for. As in her current show, the simple act of looking was more important than achieving complete understanding.

Laura Mackin

When: Through 6/23

Where: Contemporary Art Workshop, 542 W. Grant

Info: 773-472-4004

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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