For images so methodically composed, Eileen Quinlan’s photographs are strikingly vulnerable. Her polished still lifes occasionally rupture, giving breath to cavities of bodily pinks or reds and interrupting the sleek, produced read that her work initially invites.
Quinlan’s current exhibition at Overduin and Kite, titled Downtime, includes photographs from the artist’s ongoing “Smoke and Mirror” project. Maybe it’s only the likeness of the titles, or maybe it’s Quinlan’s understated aesthetic, but I can’t help thinking of Jasper Johns’ ritualistic “Corpse and Mirror” paintings—corpses and smoke aren’t that different, after all; both are lost in the process of dissipation, changing from something corporal into something ephemeral. And whenever I think of Johns, I can’t help thinking of John Yau’s responses to Johns’ work. In the poem Corpse and Mirror II, Yau emphasizes how difficult it can be to accept limitedness: “Some find it impossible to believe their life is chained to a comet. If they were to submit to the possibility the stars have exiled us from their provinces, then they would have to accept that the story unfolds without them.”
The chain, the lack of complete control that keeps people (and images) tethered, is a starting point for Quinlan’s project. Her work accepts powerlessness. But, in doing so, it becomes more powerful.
Quinlan defines her parameters clearly: she is using the physical tools of commercial photography as her means and subject but she is not digitally manipulating her images. She arranges small sets out of objects like mirrors and canvas, then accentuates her sets with colored light gels or other purely physical effects, re-photographing the same composition again and again with slightly (or strikingly) different results. She works like a fashion photographer who becomes intimately attuned to the dynamics of the fictions she stages in each shoot, “capturing” these fictions so reflectively that they become truths.
Quinlan’s “Night Flight” series, which shares a name, appropriately enough with a perfume, hangs on the gallery’s left wall. Each image is concentrically composed out of fragmented triangles of glass. Most have a darker, hazy spot at the center, where the glass triangles meet. “Night Flight #49,” with its greens, oranges, and reds, resembles a kaleidoscope, whereas “Night Flight #40” is submerged in murky aqua blue, resembling the glass of an aquarium after a break-in. Again, dissipation becomes relevant: while not actually olfactory, these images have both the airiness and menace of scents. They could infect a whole room with their aura.
The “Santa Fe” series hangs opposite “Night Flight” and the images are less concentric, more textured. With canvas, glass, and a little loose string that floats near where the composition breaks open to reveal a warm cavity, the series is more about bodily sensations and about the full transformation of a space. If not “Night Flight” was a place, “Santa Fe” creates an environment out of itself.
The simplicity of Quinlan’s project—re-photographing the same composition again and again, with fairly low tech alterations to atmosphere—at once acknowledges limitedness and embraces a sensuous muscularity. Certainly there are particular constructs and languages that Quinlan’s images are slaves to, commerciality being one of them. But there are also nuances, inconsistencies, and ruptures to explore. Quinlan’s work elegantly suggests that there are ways to get close to truth without denying the constant, confining presence of fiction.