by Max Blue
Over the past two years, Vanessa Woods has garnered critical acclaim as a photo-based collage artist whose work has been anthologized in book form and featured in various print and online publications. Portions of her previous body of work, Emic/Etic, appeared in a joint exhibition last year in this space, alongside those of Catie O’Leary.
somewhere between here and there, Woods’ first solo show at the gallery, recalls her even earlier black-and-white photomontages in which she created scenes, as opposed to the groundless objects seen in Emic/Etic and the 2014 series (In)Visible. In this latest series, Woods creates tableaus of surreal, David Lynchian otherworldliness and narratives of life and death that reveal an expanded visual vocabulary, boasting of meticulous compositional choices.
The work was produced last year following the death of the artist’s mentor, the local photographer Ken Graves (1942-2016), and was assembled using his own personal collection of collage materials. The exhibition itself includes a number of Graves’s own collages, and the gallery text suggests that Woods’ work is “part elegy, part eulogy.” Not surprisingly, the exhibition reads as an homage.
While the work certainly speaks of Graves’ influence, it’s Woods’ aesthetic that dominates. This is largely a matter of incorporating other influences and stylistic holdovers from previous series. One such influence is Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, whose work comes to mind in regard to Woods’s handling of white space, especially in works such as Weighted Wait, in which a slumped-over figure appears inside a cube that seems to pop out at us dimensionally, a scene of existential misery.
In general, this is Woods’ most theme-driven work yet. Consisting of 25 cut-and-paste collages, the exhibition resonates with a haunted feeling: a meditation on the afterlife. In Maholy-Nagy’s collages and in Graves’, the circle often appears as a repeated compositional element, symbolizing life and death, and so it does in this exhibition with works like The Rehearsal. It shows a curtain pulled back to reveal a figure standing naked before what looks like a giant petri dish, evoking a feeling of imminent departure across the void. Silted Shadows extends the motif with a ghostly silhouette rising from the gully between a mountain and plain. The foreground element, a white lily, a classic symbol for a departed soul, demarcates the line dividing this world from the next. Can See to Can’t See depicts a pregnant woman with a wrapped face, reminiscent of Magritte’s The Lovers. Woods’ The Riddle posits the vagina as the literal underpinning of the life, bringing to mind Courbet’s L'Origine du monde. Woods’s yonic symbology, however, does not end at depictions of fertility. She also includes reoccurring images of an oval stone, the traditional Eastern representation of yonic force in nature, which literally floats around the artist’s dreamscapes, such as in Weighted Wait and Shoreless Seas.
The repetition of these themes further links Woods to Graves; it’s particularly evident in pieces like Rock Placement and Multi Task — works from the late photographer that Woods openly emulates and hangs alongside her own. While perhaps less overt, works of Graves’ like Multi Task have elements that also subtly suggest conception. Though Graves’ scenes are more narrative than those of Woods, Woods’ collages create a greater thematic mood: a sense of limbo in their static representations of seemingly paralyzed figures. The uncertainty of the narratives, the pastiche of surrealist motifs – of disambiguated bodies in dream-like settings — creates a contemplative atmosphere, one that compels extended rumination as to what might await us as we confront the abyss.
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Vanessa Woods: “somewhere between here and there” @ Jack Fischer Gallery (311 Potrero location) through February 24, 2018.
About the author:
Max Blue is a Northern-California native and life-long resident, a writer of criticism, fiction, and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America, among others.