The Great Escape


The buzz around a new artist doesn’t usually reverberate much beyond a small circle of interested parties—collectors, critics, gallery owners, rivals, friends—but within that group it can be deafening. The buzz that photographer Deborah Mesa-Pelly is enjoying right now started long before her first solo show opened at Lombard-Freid this past weekend, when she was the hit of the gallery’s booth at Art Forum Berlin in early October. And her timing couldn’t be better. As the latest in a recent rush of women who work with constructed narratives (Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland, Sarah Jones, Jenny Gage, Taryn Simon, et al.), Mesa-Pelly steps into an already brightly lit arena in a relentlessly booming market. It certainly helped that Mesa-Pelly’s prices were quite affordable (a 30-by-40 color print was $1500 preshow; it’s since gone up to $1800), but the buyers who snapped up half her show in the weeks leading to the opening were what gallerist Lea Freid calls “important collectors,” not bargain hunters. Underlying the buzz is a whisper: Mesa-Pelly, they say, is on the short list for February’s “Greater New York,” the first P.S. 1-Museum of Modern Art collaboration under their premerger working agreement, a massive show of new local work that promises to rival the Whitney Biennial for art-world heat and controversy.

None of this seems to faze Mesa-Pelly, a delicate, animated, and strikingly attractive woman who just turned 32. Seated in the Williamsburg attic apartment that serves as both living and studio space for her and another woman photographer, she’s no more on edge than the average artist with an important show less than two weeks away and a prying interviewer in the house. She’s lived here since July, after leaving a larger space in Greenpoint whose 20-foot ceilings gave her plenty of space to construct the sets and props she uses in her work. Here, there’s room for a few small papier-mâché rocks on the floor and a thick pink slab of Foamular ready for molding into bricks, planks, or cave walls, but “storage is a major problem. I make objects and have to either recycle or get rid of them.”

The photographs these objects were made for are tacked to the walls all around the room. Most of them feature a young woman on the threshold of a discovery—peering into a tunnel-like hole in the wallpaper, pulling back a rug to find a miniature forest beneath the broken floorboards, kneeling at the mouth of a cave where a closet used to be, stepping into a well, climbing up a chimney. The moment Mesa-Pelly captures in each of these photos is as exhilarating as it is scary—a leap into the unknown that recalls Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole and anticipates Being John Malkovich‘s slippery, suggestive crawl through the portal. Though her settings are apparently comfortable and safe—the ur-suburbia of ’60s sci-fi movies—Mesa-Pelly imagines a crack in the world, a void into which her heroines can escape and explore a new, even dangerous, life.

Mesa-Pelly says she’s never given much thought to the prison of domesticity. “That’s not much of an issue now,” certainly not for women her age. But the girls in her photos are still looking for a way out—”an alternative to this confining world”—and she seems as intrigued by the opportunity as they are. “I like that these things could be possible,” she says, emphasizing each word separately and looking at her photos as if she hadn’t constructed them herself. “Maybe, if the circumstances are right, it could almost be conceivable that it could happen, and keeping them rooted in some kind of reality is really important.”

Obviously, as Lea Freid points out, Mesa-Pelly isn’t one for abstract theory jargon, and her unselfconscious absorption in her own artifice is part of what makes it so appealing. Like so many young photographers post-Cindy Sherman, post-Laurie Simmons, and, especially, post-Gregory Crewdson (whom she met as an undergrad at SUNY Purchase and later studied with at Yale), Mesa-Pelly took up the camera not to capture the decisive moment but to reimagine the world. “Ever since I was a tiny thing,” she says, “I’ve been interested in art—in making things. I remember when I started doing photography, depending on chance, depending on being there at the right place at the right time—that wasn’t really . . . enough for me. It wasn’t satisfying enough, and I couldn’t get the heightened quality that I wanted.”

If staging photographs allowed her to be more “introspective,” it also satisfied another need. Photo cinematographers Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia were early influences, but the real turnaround came when Mesa-Pelly “started looking at people like Robert Gober and Rebecca Horn. I wanted to make things; I wanted to construct this environment, and I started becoming more interested in sculpture.” The constructed elements of her photos can be subtle, but they’re rarely convincing, and this blatant fakery only adds to the work’s storybook wonder. The cave, the well, the chimney—these are familiar sites for fairy tales, adventure stories, and science fiction. Mesa-Pelly talks about her “protagonists” and their “tasks” as if they were characters in some private mythology—women propelled by their curiosity into rediscovering or redefining themselves. In one playfully fantastic series of photos, a girl appears in a fuzzy animal costume with an oversized, bearlike head, cozies up to a long, plush yellow tail, or steps into a pair of red sequined shoes. Crossing childhood dress-up with adult fetishism, Mesa-Pelly noses into disturbing territory—a place where desire, finding no way out, turns in on itself and festers.

Mesa-Pelly says her work is about “seeking a new identity and some sort of renewal,” among other things, and perhaps this is the point to mention that she was born in Havana, Cuba, spent a year in Spain while still a baby, and came to New York—to Queens, then Brooklyn—when she was only two. “A lot of the photos have to do with this memory of childhood, so it’s very real to me. Not specific personal memories,” she qualifies, “just these fears, and changing identity.” Prodded to relate the work to her life, she resists, insisting, “It’s all about imagination, what I enjoy and how I see things. But work, artwork, always relates to the artist, whether they admit it or not.”

When not sewing up little patches of lawn for her photos, she teaches photography at Purchase and at CUNY’s Staten Island campus and freelances for The New York Times Magazine. But for some time at least, Mesa-Pelly is likely to be typed as another ambitious Yale M.F.A. grad (’95)—one of the many young women photographers who have hit the art world hard and fast over the past few years. Though she’s been tapped for a expanded traveling version of last year’s breakthrough Yale-grad fest, “Another Girl, Another Planet,” cocurated by Crewdson, she doesn’t seem much interested in the bandwagon. She’d rather talk about escape, transformation, and building things. “I want to make full-scale constructions that I can actually go into,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “Basically, I’ve been cheating, using the illusion of photography. I’ve made segments of places and worked within the segments. What I’m interested in doing now is making the construction, going into the construction, and having a segment of a real world showing through. I don’t know how my talent for making things is going to hold up, but it’s held up so far.”

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