Tabitha Soren: Fantasy Life
April 25 - June 6, 2015
Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, MAY 2015
There’s a kind of glorious, heroic hypocrisy at the heart of American society. It goes like this: It can happen to you. On the one hand, as a notoriously optimistic, ambitious people, we cling to the idea that if you have a dream and work hard, success is within anyone’s reach. Anyone can be president, win the lottery, get a record deal, be a reality show star, go from mailroom to boardroom -- or get drafted into the Majors. On the one hand, we exhort folks to believe this myth, and point to shining examples to prove the faith. Someone has to win, someone makes the team, someone wins an Oscar or a pennant -- so why not me? The math doesn’t bear this out of course, but it’s not about logic. It’s about having a dream. Right up until it isn’t.
Photographer Tabitha Soren has both artistic (interpretive) and journalistic (documentarian) sensibilities coexisting in her practice. Although her work often makes eclectic use of the various forms photography can take (film, digital, even tintype) her goal is building and serving a narrative. In mixing up scale, printing technique, landscape, portraiture, and abstraction, she is intuitively making choices that support the emotional qualities of individual images, weaving a story that contains a range of experience within its form as well as its content. In Fantasy Life, the storyline she pursues is set in the world of professional baseball -- but, of course, it’s not really about baseball. It’s about America. Some folks think those are one and the same. And they are. But not always in a good way.
Soren followed 21 members of the Oakland A’s 2002 draft class for over a decade -- basically the entire lifespan of the average pro sports career. This involved players spending time on farm teams, waiting to get called up to The Show, with frequent trades, big breaks, broken hearts, day jobs, long bus trips, injuries, waiting around, calling plays from the dugout, gum and tobacco chewing, praying, bonding, and aging. It turns out, getting drafted isn’t the same as making the team, making the team isn’t the same as playing, playing isn’t the same thing as a star turn or a star’s paycheck, and getting paid isn’t the same as having a secure future for when you retire in your early 30s.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- not being much of a baseball fan, Soren’s pictures do not resemble traditional sports photography. Playing to her aesthetic strengths and perhaps her news reporter’s instinct to sniff out telling details, find the story behind the story, and poke around along the edges, the best images in the show are also the strangest. Yes, her portrait of Brian Stavisky is straight out of the Renaissance, and she convincingly transforms a quiet moment in the Stockton Ports’ Dugout into a lost Vermeer. Yes the labor-intensivity of her tintypes blend the ghosts and preciousness of another era in both sports and photography into magical apparitions. But the vertiginous inversion of scale and abstraction by proximity that transforms puddles of Major League brand tobacco spit and chewed gum on the dugout floor into the confetti left on a parade route -- that is something special. Likewise, the shiny metal door to the Pinnacle High School locker rooms, pockmarked by dozens of hard-hitting foul balls, is both sculpturally beautiful, and a tally of failures. The sea of disposable water cups a player ploughs through like autumn leaves, the choice to show the bright lights of Oakland Coliseum from a wide perspective that foregrounds its desolate surroundings, and the inclusion of a depopulated, flat, cloud-threatened landscape simply titled “View from Bus” -- those works signal to the viewer that something more esoteric and malleable is operational than documentation. Though by definition depicting only true life events, it is in fact in the context offered by these moments of everyday surrealism and the poetics of the oblique that by juxtaposition, expand the possibilities of meaning in the more straightforward works.
Fantasy Life is as much about chasing a dream as it is about what comes after. Think Hoop Dreams, Bull Durham, The Natural, and maybe Boyhood, with influences or at least resonance along the continuum of contemporary artists like Catherine Opie, Katy Grannan and Jeff Wall, a certain art-historical painterliness in approaching light and architecture as collaborators in allegorical symbolism, and Soren’s own personal experience with the vagaries of life on the big stage. It turns out, Soren knows a little something about “what comes after.” Photography is her life’s second act (Google it) -- and this may explain the empathy and gentleness with which she is able to portray such complex, even paradoxical scenarios of loss and lost-ness. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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