Photography isn’t so much about capturing the truth as the power to manipulate it. In the 19th century, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was a talented painter who helped to invent photography so he could get the illusionism he wasn’t getting from painting. Henry Fox Talbot, the Englishman who created the first modern camera using paper negatives, was also an artist, a draftsman. The men weren’t mad scientists of the Industrial Revolution, nor were they cultural anthropologists, searching for a mechanical device that would document society. They were artists, obsessed with the idea of an exciting new medium.
The extraordinarily talented Windsor artist Julie Sando, currently featured in Shopping for Pleasure at Meadow Brook Art Gallery, says about her work: “I deliberately employ the visual trappings of conventional or straight documentary photography in order to address our culturally perceived notion of ‘truth’.” Sando intends her work as social commentary, but a glance around the room, filled with self-portraits, outlandish narrative scenes, and her more recent site photographs, clearly reveals an artist’s love affair with the camera.
From realistic close-ups of banal street signs to theatrical sets of bourgeois living; from poetic black-and-white stills to images that use colors to convey emotions; Sando is all over the place, pulling whatever she can from the medium to get her message across.
Her work is loaded with messages about American gender, race and identity issues, and it’s easy to get lost in the meaning. In a series of three diptychs, “This Must Be the Place,” c. 2002-2004, Sando photographs married men at work and at home, juxtaposing intimate portraits of her subjects with shots of their bedrooms.
Sando usually focuses on female stereotypes, but these few sequences are haunting expressions of the roles men play in life. Posed at work or at home in professional attire, the men appear confident, but their bedrooms are decorated with feminine flourishes like a flowered quilt or scented candles, enough to make any man impotent. The mistress of the domain is a menacing presence strongly sensed.
This statement is also expressed through Sando’s carefully colored compositions. In one of the diptychs, the empty bedroom glows from a soft yellow light bouncing off wood paneled walls, contrasting boldly next to the ominous gray-blue light of the workplace. The bed faces left, while the man in his office faces right, back turned and arms behind his head, alienated from his home.
The main spectacle in the show is the gorgeously grotesque large-scale color print, “The Working Girl,” from 2001. Sando poses as a blur of domesticity, a vulnerable housewife vacuuming in her undies and pea-green high heels near a gaping picture window. Why is she naked? Who is she naked for? The viewer is an unintentional and overdressed guest at the home.
There are lots of details making this image appear as a staged event, like the rococo ridiculousness of the interior. But viewers may only notice some of the subtle notes during a close-up look at the photo. Wouldn’t a woman first and foremost take off her uncomfortable strappy shoes when cleaning? Why isn’t the vacuum cleaner plugged in?
The photo itself, like the gaudy oversized furniture within it and preconceived notions of a modern woman, trades in artifice. The barely clothed body of a bustling Sando is the only real element in the otherwise staid and static photo.
Her work is also like a history lesson, calling to mind a myriad of artists and the work that became their career trademarks — Lee Friedlander’s vernacular interiors from the ’60s, Cindy Sherman’s film stills, Andreas Gursky’s shopping centers and definitely a few 17th and 18th century European painters who charged up or chastened sexuality in their female subjects — Vermeer, Chardin and Boucher. But the difference is Sando moves smoothly throughout all those suites, choosing designs that articulate her ideas best and making them her own.
As usual, Meadow Brook curator Dick Goody writes a great essay in the exhibition catalog. In conversation, Goody says Sando’s work is difficult and sometimes it’s easiest to explain that her art is about society’s fascination with materialistic culture, as well as objectification and empowerment. But Sando’s audience will intuitively understand that the show’s title could also refer to one artist’s romp through the playground of photography. Shopping for Pleasure makes the medium seem a little less oppressed by its history and a little more about what’s in store.
Runs until Feb. 27, at Meadow Brook Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall, on the campus of Oakland University. Stop by 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, for “Canadian Cool: Decoding Contemporary Canadian Photography,” a panel discussion including Dick Goody and Julie Sando. Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]