Joy Episalla: The Photograph Unbound

Linda Nochlin, 1999

”Bareness and space (and spacing) are so difficult and seem to me of such greatness that

  I shall not even try to write seriously or fully of them. But a little..."

—James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


Joy Episalla’s large-scale photographs move effortlessly between the sensuous immediacy of experience and the mysterious space of the dream. Blankets, (in a work of 1998-99),
are piled up casually as though on a closet shelf: their colors are preternaturally rich, their textures wooly. They have that individual quality that human use bestows on the objects of our domestic life. And yet they are somehow more blankety than any blanket you have slept in: blankets at their most intense degree of specificity. Both curtain #14 and curtain #15 of the same year are to all intents and purposes abstract works, subtle patternings of colored stripes hovering on the surface of the paper. But when you look more closely, you see that these images, while certainly abstract in their appearance, are less so in their essence. Their stunning self-sufficiency derives, progressively dematerialized, from the blankets in the closet: #14 still retains a certain sense of bulge, of bulk, of irregular fold;
#15 has reduced the traces of material origin to a kind of shimmering stain—yet still, the softness of their striping, their tenuous irregularity and gentle overlapping call to mind their humble beginnings on the closet shelf. In all of these works, the object, in all its surprising contingency, fills the frame.

Curtain #18 and curtain #19 reduce the field still further. Both seem to derive from a particularly moving and richly differentiated photograph of heaped pillows—used, worn, close-up, recording every stain and wrinkle, like the close-ups of the faces of tired old people. Curtain #13 and #16 are both more literally curtains—transparent veils hanging before a window—and more mysterious. The manipulation of light and shadow dematerialize their shape and suggest a space of fantasy beyond the window frame.
The effect is quite different, however, in each case. #13 evokes an epiphany: I think
of the ray of light piercing Mary’s glass pitcher in Grünewald’s Annunciation from the
Isenheim Altar. But in the photograph, it is more a contained double blaze of brightness. #16, on the contrary, depends more on shadow for its signification: that darkness children fear, lurking beyond the reassuring bounds of the known and the domestic.

What is the status of the objects in these images? Ambiguous, they hover between extraordinary plenitude and non-existence; between the density of everyday material specificity and the evanescence of a cloud of translucent, pleated color floating before
a frame of mute desire.

Bath (1996—ongoing)

Baths and the Bather seem like traditional enough themes. One thinks of Degas’ women awkwardly yet elegantly disembarking from tubs or drying their backs, Cézanne’s massive females lolling on the banks of a river, or Bonnard’s wife dissolving in her coffin-tub. Joy Episalla’s vision of the bath owes little to the representational past (perhaps a scintilla of Frida Kahlo who did a self-in-bath subject). In a series of silver gelatin prints, the bath is constructed as a site of extreme subjectivity, of investigation of the mysterious territory of the self, viewed from the vantage point of the bather herself. In that series, the body is deployed as subject and object at once, an intimate but foreign country fading away in the distance, legs and pubis dissolved, like a disappearing archipelago, by mist and steam. What we think we know best (visually) is rendered strange. By self-photography the body becomes like a cloud, its essence a constant process of transformation, the temporal dimension of ever changing form.

3 Baths (installation 1998)

In 3 Baths, on the contrary, the position is one of stark objectivity. The three baths, unpeopled, are sited in a field; the view is a distant one, the objects far from us. Clearly illuminated in space, they suggest perhaps gravestones—or cows: something that

naturally belongs in a field. In a second photograph of the work, space is diminished and a certain Donald Judd persistence of simple form comes to the fore. A final close-up changes the viewpoint. Now we confront the interior of a single tub, in all its metallic, ordinary specificity: the soul of the tub, its tin heart. i think perhaps of Rachel Whiteread’s tubs—or rather where her tubs are not, the space of tublessness. Episalla, on the contrary, grants us the metal tub-in-itself, a richness of presence. As was the case for James Agee, (and his co-conspirator in the making of that 1936 masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
the photographer Walker Evans) who sought the spiritual and material quidditas of the
most banal object, a certain quality of light is absolutely necessary to Episalla’s achievement; that, and an equally meaningful shadow. Unlike the case for Evans in
the ’30’s, however, the truthfulness of her whole project depends on the knowing and evocative manipulation of the photographic given, a reworking of the captured trace.

Her objects are, must be, ordinary, undistinguished, vulgar even. Her images never are: they are always distinguished by an uneasy and disturbing elegance. We see this vulgarity-elegance at its most invigorating in the photo of lampshades, twin icons of bad taste, redeemed by verfremdichkeit. Although anthropomorphized, and feminine in their seductive shape, coyly corseted in pink, it is nevertheless clear that these are or were somebody’s lampshades. Their clarity doesn’t make them any less mysterious: on the contrary.