Back in the Aughts I commiserated with a production designer who complained that constantly improving hi-def digital processes meant that he and his crew had to make sets ever more realistic or audiences wouldn’t buy the onscreen action. But, as CGI superheroes performing otherworldly feats often prove, perfected artifice can become a snooze, outstripping our desire to believe. Sometimes we crave the charm of the handmade, the grit of the cobbled-together.
In her large-scale black-and-white photographs, Lauren Semivan brings all the seams of creation to the fore. Knotted strings dangle, chicken wire crumples, backdrops are slathered with brushstrokes — alternately drippy and desiccated — like the worst landlord paint job ever. In the fifty-inch-high Glacier 2 (2017), one sheet of torn white-painted board overlays another, which is covered with a black blob reminiscent of one of Robert Motherwell’s “Elegies for the Spanish Republic.” Pitchy splatters contrast with ghostly charcoal smudges, which in turn echo the gray shadow from the misaligned white surfaces. There is drama here, both formal — blots of paint scatter like oily hail across the rough white plains — and that created by visions the title triggers: ice sheets cracking and sliding under one another, abetted by environmental disaster.
Semivan was born in Detroit in 1981, and still lives and works there — a circumstance that might partially explain the hardscrabble edges of her work. In a statement accompanying the show, she writes, “Pitch; material used to waterproof the seams of wooden sailing vessels. The blackness of night in winter; the height and angle of a roof. A steep mountain standing at an immeasurable distance; the frequency of sound….Artists, like physicists, are compelled to study forces running counter to the visible.” But in fact, Semivan’s photographs give us plenty to look at, as we contemplate narratives beyond their portrayal. In 2015’s Anchor, white strings and dark cloth straps billow like sails, echoing bright chalk arcs scribed over a coarse black ground. Once more the title adds dimension to the image, ruled charcoal lines traversing broad white brushstrokes implying the slack running out on an anchor line. Contrarily, there is also a sense of drift — negative and positive shift, neither dark nor light offering stable ground. The mix she has assembled before the shutter snaps — painted backdrops with arching straps and strings — fills her scenes with an enigmatic, emphatic animation. (Semivan uses an old-school 8×10 view camera and scans in the negatives for printing.)
In other shots, the geometries of actual objects — rectangular or round tabletops, for example — emerge from the abstract sets to become what they are, a visual shift that recalls Thomas Pynchon’s view (so to speak) of language in Gravity’s Rainbow, when a character, in a heightened state, “feels the potency of every word: words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for.” Semivan’s title for Flour, Chalk, Feathers leaves out the wooden table, on which a pair of dark and light feathers lies forlornly, hinting at passing time and inexorable gravity transforming flight to stasis. Zigzags of chalk atop black paint, which is in turn scumbled over white drips, conjure stormy weather.
In Messenger, the pelt of an animal hangs behind diaphanous fabric, that softness played against rigid lines drawn on a sheet of paper curved backward to reveal more evocative contours — a tableau summoning a jumbled chronology, as if cavemen had used cameras instead of pigments to create their murals.
In a few shots, the artist herself appears; in one instance dark spatters and lines from the background flow into the patterned veils swathing her angled torso. Like one of the elaborately costumed drag queens striking poses in Jack Smith’s underground epic Flaming Creatures, Semivan is as much prop as personage.