Essay

 

DeRoo_Shank13

Untitled photograph from the series our first year together (2009–14) by Christine Shank; © Christine Shank

Metaphor and Memento in Christine Shank’s Our First Year Together

Rebecca J. DeRoo

Christine Shank’s powerful and continually unfolding work, our first year together, is an ongoing series of photographs and edition of two artists’ books, begun in 2009 and exhibited at Visual Studies Workshop in fall 2014. The title suggests the story of a couple or a human relationship. This is reinforced by two images: one showing an anonymous male figure and the other an anonymous female figure. The woman is photographed from behind, with long hair obscuring her features, and the man’s eyes are closed in contemplation, so that the individuals’ identities and experiences remain ambiguous. Instead, photographs of domestic objects, still lifes, and landscapes evoke conflicting emotions, interpersonal dynamics, and various moments in the trajectory of a relationship.

Christine Shank’s powerful and continually unfolding work, our first year together, is an ongoing series of photographs and edition of two artists’ books, begun in 2009 and exhibited at Visual Studies Workshop in fall 2014. The title suggests the story of a couple or a human relationship. This is reinforced by two images: one showing an anonymous male figure and the other an anonymous female figure. The woman is photographed from behind, with long hair obscuring her features, and the man’s eyes are closed in contemplation, so that the individuals’ identities and experiences remain ambiguous. Instead, photographs of domestic objects, still lifes, and landscapes evoke conflicting emotions, interpersonal dynamics, and various moments in the trajectory of a relationship.

Throughout the series, photographed objects take on complex human characteristics. For example, one photograph presents a close-up of a pink bubble of chewing gum pinned to a wall. The bubble gum suggests a human form, with its rounded shape and delicate droop evoking a pregnant belly. The pink color and the expansion of the material suggest the stretching of flesh. The pink bubble brings to mind youth and ebullience, both in terms of lightheartedness and the shape of the object. Yet the bubble is partially deflated and pierced by the pin, so that it simultaneously conveys disenchantment, loss, and violence.

Other images represent human relationships as well, such as the photograph of two vertical stacks of sliced grocery store bread that evoke two figures. The stack on the left leans toward the other, perhaps in aggression or need for support. The stack on the right seems to recede and comply, its curvilinear shape accommodating the other, yet it appears unbalanced at the base. The bright blue twist ties in the foreground may at first seem playful, yet they are contorted, conveying intense emotion.

Throughout the photographic series, domestic objects appear familiar, yet also disquieting. For example, embroidered cloth with wrinkles shows daily wear, and partially used bars of soap convey a sense of intimacy. Yet there are also photographs of knifelike icicles or blood stains on linen cloth, suggesting undercurrents of violence.

Within the context of the title our first year togetherthe landscapes hold different resonance. On one level, they recall the process of taking photographs as a memento of a place of importance in a personal relationship. On another level, however, the landscapes evoke human qualities—from the turbulent water and waves to fertile green grass (with occasional dry patches), to the rocky, barren earth and the placid sea.

Also fascinating are the different arrangements of the images. For example, a photograph of a vase and flowers on a wooden table recalls the tradition of vanitas painting. The flowers suggest fertility, but also the passage of time and mortality, as they are drying and fading with age. Other images of flowers take on a very different tenor, such as one that appears more commercial in character, with a blue backdrop and studio lighting, so that the flowers seem artificially preserved. Shank translates the subjects into various visual genres to achieve dramatically different effects.

Shank’s images are deeply embedded in photographic history. For example, her image of a desktop covered with faded brown paper and craft-store sparkles brings to mind historical photographic processes and practices. The trace left by a pair of scissors on the otherwise faded paper evokes the photogram, a process by which an object is placed on photographic paper and then exposed to light, creating an outline of the object. On the side of the image, the crescent-shaped stain seems to be left by a mug or a glass, yet it also recalls the marks that can appear from bubbles or chemical stains when developing film or photographs by hand. The round sparkles scattered across the center of the image playfully recall sunspots or lens flare. At the same time, the sparkles recall Shank’s star-scapes and flowered landscapes, tying the image to others in the exhibition.

Although the title evokes “one year together,” individual images suggest different conceptions of time, such as the photograph of the keepsake jar on the windowsill. The glass jar containing small pebbles is sealed shut, suggesting an effort to preserve a souvenir and memory from times past. Yet on the windowpane, fleeting droplets of condensation anchor the photograph to a particular moment in time. Through the upper part of the window, we see a dried autumn leaf that has not fallen from the tree, while in the background, we glimpse the green leaves and full trees of summertime, so that the image conveys broader cycles of time and stages of life.

our first year together suggests the history of a couple’s relationship. But the title can be understood in different ways, and perhaps the viewer can be included in the use of “our,” capturing the spectator’s active encounter with the artwork. In the exhibition of our first year together at VSW, images were grouped on the gallery walls and recombined in the artist’s books, where they could be juxtaposed depending on how the pages were turned. Through these different combinations, the images do not form a single narrative, but rather use interconnected themes, and symbols of time and emotion, to generate dynamic meanings in the course of an ever-evolving relationship.

Rebecca J. DeRoo is an assistant professor in the Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture at the Rochester Institute of Technology

DeRoo_Shank08

Untitled photograph from the series our first year together (2009–14) by Christine Shank; © Christine Shank

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