Those familiar with photography over the last sixty years or so will recognize the genre of Leslie Hickey’s photographs at Holding Contemporary. The work harkens back to the minimal interior shots of William Eggleston — a style emulated by a slew of photographers ever since. The primary goal of such photography, simply put, is to find something special about the mundane. Hickey’s photographs manage to celebrate the mundane and, at least in one case, convey a mood as well. (The lighting in the gallery may have been a factor, for each piece was dimly lit, not so dim as to lose details of the work, but enough to encourage only soft-toned conversations opening night.)
When photographing mundane subject matter, that to which we typically are oblivious or wouldn’t otherwise think to document, the goal is not to have the final image appear as a manipulated/staged vignette, but instead use framing and technical abilities of the camera to elevate that which is seen. Success comes in how well one illuminates the extraordinary that lingers within empirical reality. The hope is that mediation by the photographer, and then contemplation by the viewer of the scene somehow replaces the superficiality with something more complex, perhaps even sublime, even as it remains matter of fact. And as in many other art forms, visual irony and/or paradox play a role in determining success.
Notably, Hickey’s photographs do not contain people, and therefore narrative qualities are subdued. Nevertheless, we can read a story in Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). A rotary phone (the image was taken in 2019) hangs on the wall above a corkboard full of index cards held with push pins. A bottle of Wite-Out sits on a small ledge, and an electrical cord neatly runs along that ledge to a point out of frame. We recognize the old plastic wall tiles as something from our own grandma’s house. Based on this corner of her room, we get a good sense that while still in an analog world, she is as sharp as one of those push pins. Yet it is significant that Grandma is nowhere to be seen. We have no idea if she is still alive, which may answer why I feel a certain melancholy when I look at the image.
Hickey’s photo, SACI Still Life, Angle, while narrative in that it has a sense of place, is less specific than Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). It could be a scene from any art school.. (SACI stands for Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. Hickey attended the school in 2004 and had an exhibit there in 2017.) The configuration of flowers and glass set up on an old, beat-up plinthe is likely for a painting class, yet Hickey has usurped it with her camera. To what end? While the flowers arranged against the light green glass is pretty enough, and we presume that it is the focus of a painting exercise, its arrangement strongly contrasts with other elements in the photo.The piece of easel, the used sandpaper, and most significantly, a foreground emphasizing the textures of the ragged plinthe, bring contrast and friction to the image. (Sandpaper!)
A similar contrariness exists in Wire (Rockaway). The wire and its shadow presents as a simple drawing, largely due to the texture of the paper or whatever the wire rests on.Then again, in that we know this is a photograph, the raised bumps make the photo appear to be printed on rough handmade paper. Hotel Alla Salute bed (diptych) employs the same illusion, only this time it looks as though the walls in the photos have been hand colored, when in actuality, whoever painted the walls did a fairly uneven job. One can get a sense of these illusions from the images posted with this essay, yet seeing the work in person will bring another degree of appreciation, and the close engagement will find the viewer getting inches away and at an angle to see if there is indeed a manipulated surface.
Holding Contemporary is a small gallery and Hickey shares the space this month with Erin Murrray’s drawings as part of a two-person show, What We See and What We Know. With limited exhibition space, we can assume that Hickey’s six photographs in this exhibit were carefully chosen (especially given that the dates for the work span a four-year time period, and a photographer generally takes a lot of photos). I commend the gallery and artist in their curation.
Finally, I cannot resist relating these photos to this particular moment, our life in the time of Covid-19. Perhaps by nature and profession, visual artists are figuratively and literally some of the most self-isolating people one will know. If not lost in thoughts primed by the eye, they are in the studio realizing those ideas through a medium of choice. A day or two, a week or three, distraction-free and confined to the studio or house, is a blessing not often afforded. (However, this “free” time may come with great financial loss, so please, if you can, buy some art and support your local art institutions now.) We might all do well to adopt this attitude and not only slow down to appreciate the simple things around us, but attend to what is important that has until now been put aside.
Holding Contemporary is open by appointment only. The gallery will also be amplifying its digital presence by having artists “take over” the gallery’s Instagram feed (@holdingcontemporary) and tag photos of interior architecture/still life.