Traversing the Backyard Horizon

by Christian Rattemeyer

Almost all of Joy Episalla’s works—photographs, videos, installations, and objects—occupy an uneasy place of transition, equally informed by the objects from which they are derived and the sometimes forceful alterations they underwent. They are torn between the intimately personal narratives that often make up the origin of the subject matter and the formal rigidity, however elegant, with which these stories are framed. For her installation removed (2000-2002), Episalla recorded the liquidation of her mother’s household a decade after her father’s death, and focused on two couches, one sold on Ebay, the other skinned, cut, and exhibited in the gallery like a severed, mutilated carcass. The story, embedded in tenderness, and the object, exposing the violence it endured, once more are battling for their roles in one’s personal memory, revered and recorded, or deposed and discarded. In other works, photographic images take on some of the characteristics of the objects they display. In pillow #2 (1999), a monumental photographic tryptych almost fifteen feet in length, the image of two old, stained pillows itself acquires some
of the wounded, vulnerable, and somatic qualities of the objects. The image’s green tint, the monumental scale of the work, and the sculptural positioning of the photograph, sitting directly on the ground and leaning against the wall, replicate a visceral reaction toward the image that has its model in one’s own bodily relation to the stained and used pillows. Linda Nochlin has spoken of the ambiguous status of the objectsin Episalla’s photographs, as they “hover between extraordinary plenitude and non-existence; between the density of the everyday material specificity and the evanescence of a cloud of translucent, pleated color floating before a frame of mute desire.”1  Episalla is not only concerned with the gap that opens between the object and the image, but the act of physical transference that occurs when the photograph takes on sculptural, visceral qualities of its own. She also pushes the image’s internal dualities until they begin to resonate with the rupture between the object and its representation.

Episalla’s most recent body of work acts as a frame for an ever increasing set of splits and oppositions, both on the level of content and form. for the birds brings together videos, objects, and photographs face-mounted behind plexi and printed on industrial vinyl common in outdoor advertisement banners. Carefully edited and cropped, the images measure an intimate space of reference, focusing on the backyard of a New York apartment building and the bookshelves of a

personal friend. for the birds (2003) is a video projection that presents an ivy-covered wall in an inner-city backyard, shot in one static and continuous take and only enlivened by the sporadic movement caused by birds both in front of and within the foliage. The ambient sound of distant noise, continuous bird chatter, restaurant preparations, and an emergency siren securely locate the scene in an urban surrounding. Projected onto a gallery wall with a recessed door opening, the projection becomes spatial as the viewer is forced to transverse the image into the following room. In another room, a larger than life-size image of the ivy wall, printed on vinyl, lit from the back, and suspended at a slight angle, once again allows for a relation to the image that is immediately perceived as a physical, performative operation. Several photographs offer close-ups of the ivy wall and its surroundings, respectively focusing on a pair of birds, a crevice in the texture of the foliage, the subtle shadows of the afternoon sun on the ivy leaves, and a hole in the ground of the backyard. Two additional images show tightly cropped views of the woven bands of simple folding garden chairs, one featuring subtle tones of blue and grey, the other displaying stark contrast between the white and red bands.

Carefully orchestrated, the sequence of projection and images illuminates the various formal and narrative registers at play and introduces subtle variations and transitions from one image to the next. On a formal level, Episalla continues her concern for the sculptural possibilities of photography. Each photograph—in its subject matter, cropping, print, and support surface—exploits a different aspect of the visual parameters of the medium: one focuses on the sudden change of texture and density, another appears as if it were a three-dimensional object, and a third marvels in the abrupt occurrences of depth and shadow, pushing the objects in the relative foreground of the image firmly against the surface of the work. The muted flatness of the vinyl support’s surface, used for the two largest images, succeeds best at the effect of giving pictorial depth, as the crevices in the foliage register as light-absorbent voids that recede deep into the shadows. The more intimately-sized color photographs acquire a different form of spatial play
as they focus on one element—two birds turning inward, a hole in the ground, or a break in the foliage—that draws our attention to the invisible backside of the densely grown greenery. And the woven bands in the photographs of lawn chairs exploit the sudden change of depth and dimension between band and cavity, and further complicate the relation through their cross-

weaving pattern. The video instead focuses on the slight differences between stillness and motion, between the static take of the camera and the immobile position of the wall and the continuous movement of the birds both within and outside of the dense foliage.

Behind the video projection is another, smaller room, containing the second thematic element
of the exhibition. Covering the wall of windows at the far end of the room is a slightly larger-than-life photograph of bookshelves, printed on a more translucent vinyl mesh. As the day passes, the light conditions in the room change and the image takes on ghostly qualities as the architectural elements of the wall behind it and the view through the windows come forth and render it pale. Portrait of FM (2002) at first seems like a simple inversion and continuation of the video: sited indoors not outside, it displays books on birds, travel, nature, some novels, and other personal yet discontinuous topics. Similarly intimate in subject matter and monumental in scale, it introduces the concept of daydreaming and inquiry that is situated against the professional realm of knowledge production. A refuge of other sorts, the bookcase shares with the backyard a potential for discovery that is simultaneously engaged and surprising, and situated firmly outside of the rationale of conventional scholarly assertion. The most sculptural object in the exhibition is a double-sided, free-standing photograph sandwiched between Plexi. Depicting a single bookshelf with over forty issues of the 1950s art magazine “Horizons”—bookcase #1 (2004)—it is also the most allegorical: literally quoting the dividing line of nature and, by extension, the metaphor for human discovery, it renders Episalla’s attention for the intimate, personal, and everyday as a larger exploration into the mechanics of inquiry, reverie, and knowledge.

Firmly invested in the formal dualities of photography and sculpture, personal narrative and physical object, and the intimate and universal, Episalla’s most recent body of work functions like a catalogue of transitions and oppositions: stillness and motion, flatness and pictorial depth, the image and the object, the animate and the inanimate, the intimate and the impersonal, all appear as protagonists in a playful battle for meaning. But unlike her earlier work, which focused on the physical, direct, and sometimes violent aspects of human life and its residues in everyday objects, her most recent body of work opens into the allegorical, where the immediacy of experience, both visual and physical, becomes imbued with a larger narrative of discovery.

1 Linda Nochlin: “Joy Episalla: The Photograph Unbound”, in: Joy Episalla, Inside/out, Debs & Co, 1999, n.p.