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The Uncanny: Barbara Rose on Carolyn Marks Blackwood's Story Series

Artist Carolyn Marks Blackwood with one of her new photographs.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood, The Story Series

By BARBARA ROSE, MARCH 2017

      In the past, most of Carolyn Marks Blackwood’s photographs have ranged from abstractions to specific subjects that reference nature.  The Story Series is different. These narrative photographs are psychologically charged and enigmatic.

      People have never inhabited Blackwood’s photographs. Visually, The Story Series is no exception. However, while there are no human beings in sight, the photographs conjure invisible characters, whose fates are suggested by a narrative caption at the bottom of each photograph. 

      In this series, she draws on all of her extensive visual experiences, as well as her own feelings and emotions, to create a new kind of photograph that demands the participation of the viewer, lending her images a distinct urgency and poignancy. For Blackwood, storytelling, which projects the recorded moment forward into the future or backward into memory, is a natural development, because she has been involved for decades with film, both as producer and screenwriter.  Film of course, depends on narrative and it is with this narrative element that she asks each viewer to explore, becoming in essence, the author of his or her own private, individual script.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Every night, he longed for her.  Archival Pigment Print, 62 x62 inches, Edition of 3. Courtesy of Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles.

      The idea that the work of art is made by the artist but completed by the viewer was first explored by Marcel Duchamp in “The Creative Act”, a talk of signal importance that he gave in April 1957, at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts. According to Duchamp, “The artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way to a clearing…This phenomenon is comparable to the transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.”  Sixty years later, Duchamp’s words seem to anticipate what Blackwood has achieved in these evocative and mysterious photographs. 

       Blackwood starts with a scene, in a specific time and place that seized her attention.  To begin the catalytic process of free association from the viewer, she provides clues by supplying provocative caption lines, which act as the beginning of a story.  At that point, she hands the story over to the viewer, who completes it with his or her own experiences, expectations and personal history.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood, She slipped out of the house. She was just fourteen and ready for her big adventure,
Archival Pigment Print, 62 x 62 inches, edition of 3. 
Courtesy of Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles.

     The photographs are taken from the point of view of the spectator, who then becomes the protagonist of the “story”. Like a Rorschach blot, Blackwood’s stories elicit subjective interpretation. Thus each viewer creates a different narrative. Some of the images imply crossroads and indeed many are actual intersections, the moment at which the viewer realizes the ramification of what has happened or what is yet to occur, depending on the choices made to go forward or to turn back.  Her conception of the viewer’s experience is a kind of epiphany, a revelation where you gather strength, or lose hope. 

      These images suggest an active choice, an action to be taken in relation to a future that is unknown.  Many of them represent that pivotal moment when you suddenly realize that the trajectory of your life must change- that you must travel an unknown path.  Her intention is to have the Story Photographs challenge the viewer to ask questions that they have previously avoided, for fear of not having the courage to act on the answer.  Participating in this cathartic dialogue the active viewer thus becomes a partner in the creative process.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Even through her terror, she could see the beauty.
Archival Pigment Print, 48 x 48 inches. 
Courtesy of Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles.

       The roads, junctures and clearings in Blackwood’s photographs have a plangent strangeness that corresponds to the Romantic concept of the unheimlich or the uncanny, in which the familiar and the everyday is suddenly transformed into the dreamlike. Viewers are invited to project themselves into the dreamlike landscape and imagine what awaits them. This dreamlike state is also how you feel when you cross a line in your life- when things you take for granted are suddenly foregrounded. What is “normal” is dramatically questioned.  That house looks so nice, but what goes on behind closed doors?  What drove this person onto the road in the middle of the night?  What possessed her to go out into the storm? What is really happening behind the façades of neighborhood houses? 

      These photographs bring to life those uncanny moments when things that have been secret and hidden, suddenly come to light; when the subconscious comes to the surface. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of mystery, used everyday objects and places in a way that caused them to portend potential danger. There is an undeniably Gothic quality to Blackwood’s images of dark roads, isolated houses lit from within, storms, snow and shadows. The images are familiar but enigmatic-- sometimes frightening even-- or perhaps just comforting, depending on the viewer’s associations. Does the path lead to a dangerous encounter or a warm embrace? We all have our stories. Only our own individual, personal interpretation, tells how the journey will end. WM

 

Barbara Rose

Barbara Rose is an art historian, critic and curator who lives in Rhinebeck, New York and Madrid, Spain. She was contributing editor to Art International. Art in America, Artforum, New York magazine and her articles have appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, ABC Cultural, and Corriere della Sera, among other publications. Her exhibition Painting after Postmodernism Belgium/USA opens May 4 in Malaga Spain before traveling to the Regia di Caserta in Italy.

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