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Through A Pinhole Darkly

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Louis Brawley

at Schneider, through November 27

By Fred Camper

In another era or another context, some modern devices and styles might seem silly technical mistakes. Canadian photographer Rodney Graham hangs his large, elegant prints of trees upside down. Buildings designed by the New York architectural firm SITE look as if they're about to split apart. And all 21 of Louis Brawley's photographs at Schneider appear to be out of focus.

Technically they're not. Pinhole photos, they were taken with a 35-millimeter camera whose lens had been replaced with a hole in a metal plate; the resulting images have excellent depth of field, but because they're handheld time exposures, Brawley's movement and his subjects' movement render everything a blur.

Sixteen of these are "portraits": a single figure stands facing the camera, hands clasped, usually with a wall close behind. Though the pictures are too fuzzy for facial details to be distinguished, the subjects are nonetheless clearly people. Brawley mounts his prints on Masonite and laminates them so he doesn't need to use glass; his hope, he said, is to have them "read more as paintings." His use of bright and often contrasting colors in dress and backgrounds--hot reds and greens and blues--does suggest attention to painterly issues, setting up a tension between these images as calculated visual designs and as photographic records of the world.

But most viewers will see them as photographs--which leads to another, more significant tension. The human body is a loaded form immediately triggering all sorts of associations, and we're naturally curious about gender, attire, body type, facial expression. Brawley's images frustrate that curiosity: sometimes only the title tells us the gender, we can't distinguish K mart's finest from high fashion, and the faces are ciphers. Brawley's pleasantly colorful images are also about our inability to see, our inability to know.

Born in Ohio in 1958, Brawley remembers his first significant experience of art taking place in a room made entirely of mirrors--Lucas Samaras's installation at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, near where Brawley grew up. He recalls "standing on the mirrored floor looking down and feeling like I was floating in infinite space. The idea of infinity impacted me big time because it sort of throws everything that you think you see into uncertainty." Brawley's photographs lack the enveloping quality of Samaras's room, but they too are wonderfully uncertain. The combination of pinhole camera and movement creates a strange lack of traditional perspective--there are no lens flares or other markers of photographic space. And the fact that the subjects' clothing often blurs into a similarly colored background, as when dark green yields to a lighter shade in Ron (Green), adds to the sense that we're adrift, without firm coordinates. When the colors do contrast, the choice seems arbitrary.

Brawley studied philosophy and art history in college and was a painter and a performance artist (who positioned himself behind a one-way mirror) before taking up photography in 1989. Like a philosopher turned poet when no conclusions about the world could be reached, Brawley mixes clarity and obfuscation, presence and distance, fidelity to and denial of his medium. Many artists have made works that are in part about the process of perceiving them; Brawley's photos are about the specific ways in which they're simultaneously clear and obscure.

Pinhole photographs are less mediated than others because of the lack of a lens; images made this way typically feel more direct. And Brawley's carefully chosen colors and forms have a certain immediacy. But their blurriness places a kind of screen or fog between the viewer and the subject. Brawley denies photography its original source of power, fidelity--yet in a way he's truer to his subjects than most photographers. An exposure lasting a fraction of a second slices off a narrow segment of time, but Brawley gives us a second or more: his blur is a record of all the uncertainties of the human body. Or as Brawley says, leaving the shutter open "allows for the slippage of time and memory."

The shadow of the figure in Tamara (Red Brick) falls on a red wall to her left--and her shadow feels weightier than her body. Doubling the figure, it might stand for the photographic process, calling into question all the conventions of image making--why is a realistic, in-focus portrait considered a better representation than a silhouette, for example? Similarly, the graffiti on the security door behind the figure in Kiki (Red) is more vivid than her dark, shapeless figure. Her head seems to have two faces--Brawley gave the woman two head positions--and the instability of her presence reinforces the graffiti's strength.

The blurred softness of three large pictures of modern office-building facades seems a deliberate attempt to humanize these endless curtain wall grids, giving their euclidean firmness the randomness of body movement. One of the two remaining pictures shows a barn and the other a house--almost as loaded as a figure, suggesting family and history. Shot from below, this house would seem powerful, even threatening, if it weren't for Brawley's soft focus. Again he undermines our tendency to read stories into an object or figure.

Brawley calls photography "kind of a melancholy medium," and indeed it has long been used to document death. But there's also some melancholy in the way Brawley's attractive colors ultimately lead to a distancing fuzz. It's as if the very act of making a representational image were also an act of removal. And know-ledge of the photographic process means knowledge of its failures--exposure times and degrees of sharpness are equally arbitrary choices in representing reality. Brawley's work seems to express a kind of nostalgia, perhaps for a time when artists believed they could make simulacra, perhaps for a time when many had a child's faith in the connection between eyesight, touch, and knowledge.

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