'She' is the landscape 

The photo collage of two naked bodies embracing tenderly in a nest-like thicket has a bizarre unearthliness. The salmon-egg pink field of color encompassing the bodies suggests a surreal, sci-fi B-movie poster. Unfortunately, the image was used on the cover of the Art Gallery of Windsor's 2008 Fall Guide for photographer Michele Tarailo's retrospective Ebb and Flow. Out of the context, the photo collage is misleading and titillating, hardly representative of her emotionally nuanced work.

Executed over the course of almost 30 years since she graduated from Cranbrook Art Academy in 1980, Tarilo's amazing array of photographic experiments explore the representations of a personal, dreamlike consciousness engaged in a psychologically challenging and often painful world. They are always psychologically probing, often sensuous, but scarcely erotic.

Including some 80 works that fill three galleries of the Art Gallery of Windsor, Ebb and Flow surveys the whole range of Tarailo's work from straight black-and-white and color photography to collotypes, lithographs and watercolor, including a new video work. Throughout the work there is a dramatically emotional relationship between a female figure — Tarailo consistently refers to her as "she" — and the world. Tarailo also asserts the "she is not me," but that Tarailo "can play 'she' better than hiring some actress to play her." In a sense, Tarailo's collected photographic experiments constitute a visual text, one that explores the relationship between the inner world of this female figure and events and images of an often violent, derelict material world.

Tarailo isn't comfortable labeling or applying theories to her work, at least not so far: "I make choices and then I make more choices. I sample things from the world, from magazines or movies or from my own old photos and go from there. Maybe it's time, at this point in my life as an artist, that I articulate that relationship."

In the early work the female figure is often reclining with eyes closed as if dreaming, but other times only implicitly there. In "Bed," a collotype from 1980, the earliest image in the exhibition, we see an empty bed, sheets in disarray. While it may seem like an erotic reference to what has occurred in the bed, it more calls attention poignantly to the emptiness of the bed, to the aura or existential presence of life in the empty bed.

There are a number of small black-and-white collotypes from this early period. In the early '80s, Tarailo was one of few photographers working with collotypes, an antiquated process that gives a continuous and smooth tone to the image. "I went up to Alma College and learned the process from well-known printer Kent Kirby, the only artist around who knew the process. I loved the rich, even tones the process gave to the photo, but it was a labor-intensive process that took three days to print once I had the negative and we had to use some nasty chemicals."

In 1981, Detroit poet Chris Tysh appropriately used three Tarailo black-and-white collotypes in her book of poems entitled Secrets of Elegance, an exquisite meditation on French fashion designers. On the cover is an image of a window covered with a gauzy curtain filtering the harsh exterior light. The image suggests the difference between the outside of the room and the inside, the subconscious mind with its dreamlike inner darkness. Another mesmerizing image reveals a bed with blankets and sheets gorgeously tossed in a classically serpentine pattern. There is a reminder of a feminine consciousness in these works that has dreamed and departed.

Though she lives in Windsor and teaches at University of Windsor, Detroit provides Tarailo with a lot of material. "Lodge Freeway," a gorgeous transparency collage, is an iconic Detroit image that graphically renders the female figure's subliminal conjunction with the urban landscape. At the center is an aerial view of an intestine-like Lodge freeway interchange. In strata of images below and above the center figure are folds of bedding enwrapping the arm and angst-ridden face of "she." It is as though "she" dreams the city is her inner organs. Tarailo separates herself from artists who simply use the derelict landscapes of Detroit for their shock value. She is the landscape; the landscape is her.

In "Lodge Freeway," as in many of her collages, one finds a distinct cinematic quality to Tarailo's art. In "Dream (Cars)" "she" is in a fetal position on a bed in a central panel with overlapping images of nightmarish faces and piles of skulls aligned with piles of the carcasses of cars. It is as if she is dreaming the world in visual sentences. As in other collages some of the images are appropriated from recognizable movies — in this case David Lynch's Eraserhead — and TV commercials. In one panel, suggesting a mythological narrative, she is bound by rope to the bed, perhaps the only refuge from the violent nature of reality, as if bound to the subconscious dream site.

The technical mastery of her work, suggesting a fluid, painterly handling of photographic processes, relies upon the usual contemporary digital technology. She regularly honors the influence of her father, a photographer himself who built her studio, in her collaging of images.

"My father's precise craftsmanship was influential in terms of how I build my work, but artistically the Canadian artist Betty Goodwin was most important to me," she has said. Betty Goodwin is an artist who has used an array of visual techniques — collage, printmaking, etching, drawing and assemblage — to investigate the "body suffering," (as she coined it) versus the "body politic." Tarailo's work reflects similar techniques and similar psychological interests in providing a visual narrative context for her feminine persona.

There are moments in Tarailo's work that make the viewer forget its edgy psychology and simply relish its rich, visual sensuousness. In "Steel/Figures" there is a gorgeous, cubist-like play of steel geometric shapes that are rusted and corroded into a majestic patina. The serene depth of the collage belies the hidden figures of "she" that are embedded throughout the panels of steel. (The seasoned art viewer will recognize that one section of steel is appropriated from a Richard Serra sculpture.)

In another gorgeous play of urban strata, "Graffiti (Windsor)" intercuts colorful graffiti, railroad tracks and freeway bridges — quite simply eye candy for the viewer who may not need to pursue Tarailo's painful subtext.

Tarailo works in series to develop a particular theme or site, and in each are works of stunning emotional entanglement in both urban and natural settings. In the "Forest Series" there is a transcendently lyrical spirit in nature that doesn't exist in the other works. In the "Chest Series," she internalizes the world in a totally surprising way. In the last room of Ebb and Flow Tarailo has turned her vision to video and the "Ice/Figure" is a wonderful meditation on the dreamlike movement of the world around us.

For many years Michele Tarailo has been a quiet and consistent presence in the Windsor-Detroit art scene, but with the stunning accumulation of work in Ebb and Flow, she emerges with a subtle, confident and articulate voice.

Michele Tarailo's Ebb and Flow runs through Nov. 23, at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor; 519-977-0013.

Glen Mannisto is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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