Thursday, August 24, 2006
All manner of glossy postcards and thick press packets flow through the Weekly every day. For the most part, this river of artwork and reception announcements just rushes through our in-boxes, pours across our desks and splashes into our recycle bins with little more than a quick glance and a frantic notation in the database.
But every once in a while something special comes along. An image so affecting that it manages to silence the frantic drang and gnash of deadlines and editorial meetings—if just for a moment. Sometimes, once in a very long while, I’ll even stop what I’m doing to cut the image out and tape it somewhere near my computer.
This is how I came across Camille Solyagua. Tearing manically through my mail, I was arrested by a reproduction of one of her photos—a hazy monochrome image of three seahorses swim-flying through a bright over-exposed halo on Will-O’-The-Wisp wings. Despite the weight of deadlines threatening to collapse my fragile mental architecture, I took the time to crop the photo and hang it with transparent tape above my desk.
It was a good move. Studying the thing I felt the stress melt away and time stop for a short while. The photo is an odd, stark combination of images, but the wings on the seahorses seem so natural, their postures and placement completely congruent with some weird combination of metaphysics and aerodynamics. Their black saucer-plate eyes and graceful necks, their odd, intergalactic trajectories, the veins in their dragonfly wings—each detail suggests the scientific precision of a re-imagined Victorian Age. They looked to me like specimens from a turn-of-the-century fairy-world.
Karen Sinsheimer, curator of Photographs at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, says Solyagua’s work seems to “hark back to another age, when flowers were pressed between the pages of a book and butterfly specimens were carefully mounted and preserved.” But it’s as if the book she pressed her specimens in was The Necronomicon. There’s something very gothic, almost Lovecraftian, about Solyagua’s images. It’s a dark whimsy—the fragile life forms are viewed through the smoked glass bell jar of suspended animation. It’s haunting to say the least.
The images are photographed in crisp, high definition contrast. The art lies in the incredibly detailed minutiae of her subjects. These creatures’ odd postures suggest introspective dance—nothing frantic, nothing ruffled. Instead we have fantastic beasts and insects moving with an odd dignity through boundaries of life and death, the real and imagined.
In “Portrait of a Young Bird, Paris, 1999” the bright white skeleton of a delicate bird stands in stark contrast to the deep black background. The thing appears in transit across the very landscape of death itself—an old, hand-lettered specimen tag hanging off its leg like a ticket to the netherworld. In “Museum National D’Histoire Naturelle Study 3, 1995” a chimpanzee ear hangs suspended in a jar of formaldehyde, its disturbingly human form framed by an inch of fur and skin. Beneath it, the specimen label’s divinely gorgeous cursive lettering identifies the ear’s long-dead owner like a moldering dinner placard. Severed along with the flap of head, the chimp ear appears to retain some god-awful function—as if it’s still hearing things a century after it was dropped with a viscous splash into the preservative.
In “Wing Study 1 (gift form Ruth), 1995” a winged insect stands, as if en pointe like a ballerina, on impossibly delicate corkscrew legs. Solyagua’s photo conjures the whimsy of Cirque du Soleil and hard biological science. In “Starfish Study 2, (R.B. Cigar Box #3),” Solyagua frames her subject in the spotlight of a microscope, revealing the creature in a posture so alien and intimate that the experience is almost voyeuristic. In “Flying Bird Study 14, 1995” the effect is arcane and archaeological. The image is a mere suggestion of flight somehow buried for centuries in stone.
Ultimately, Solyagua’s gift may be her ability and willingness to allow her subjects’ simple beauty and odd otherworldliness speak for itself. In “Slide Study 6, 1995” the detail of a single white feather is heartbreaking in its fragility and grace. In “Circle Study 1, 1996” she photographs the naked, impossibly frail and brittle architecture of a leaf. There’s very little left of its body in this world, but what remains, this beautiful shadow of itself, speaks more about the preciousness of life than an entire tree in the full vigor of spring.
Solyagua’s photographs are a nice reminder that there is so much more than the deadlines and pressures and stresses of life. Stop and take a look. Step out of the current and take a moment for seahorses with wings.
CAMILLE SOLYAGUA’s show opens Friday with a reception from 6-8pm and continues through Sept. 29 at the Center for Photographic Art, between San Carlos and Ninth Streets, Carmel. A monograph that accompanies the exhibition will also be available for purchase. For more information call 625-5181 or visit photography.org.