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Syncopated Spaces

by Cathy Kimball, Executive Director, San Jose ICA

Kathryn Dunlevie, Syncopated Spaces, Hooks-Epstein Galleries, December 2009.

Taking the time to look at a work of art beyond a cursory glance is always a rewarding endeavor. What, at first, seems obvious and straightforward becomes more complex and compelling upon closer observation. Alternatively, that which appears complicated and chaotic resolves into segments of clarity and meaning. This is certainly the case in the work of Kathryn Dunlevie. Her photographic collages initially seem to represent recognizable urban landscapes, ornate architectural interiors, and familiar domestic still lives. However, it is soon apparent that Dunlevie is depicting the intersection of multiple perspectives of time and space in her complex compositions. The exercise of trying to visually maneuver through her compositions is as frustrating as it is gratifying. Injecting a wry twist of humor into the work, she compels the viewer to try and “solve” the spatial puzzle, to make some sense of the similar, yet disparate elements of her tableaux. Time is an important element in her work – the time it takes to create such complex compositions and the time it takes to visually deconstruct them.

Dunlevie points to the Cubist compositions of Georges Braque as one point of inspiration. She cites his “seemingly illogical jumps that end up making perfect sense.”[1] However, unlike the Cubist constructions of Braque, where the viewer is initially confused by surfaces that intersect at seemingly random angles, Dunlevie’s compositions are almost believable upon initial viewing. By employing photography, Dunlevie prolongs the deception. We are usually quite willing to believe a photographic image as reflective of the truth. Only upon prolonged inspection, is it clear that her juxtapositions are implausible. Through brilliant compositional detail and manipulation, she creates disconcerting, surprising, inexplicable spaces and scenarios – swimming pools that have many points of entry, cloisters with multiple arched domes, streetscapes that elude mapmakers, and interior settings that are almost, but not quite right.

In recent years, her work also has been inspired by her interest in contemporary theoretical physics: String Theory’s speculation about extra dimensions and particle physics’ descriptions of the fundamentals of matter. However, in the end, despite the heady ruminations of subatomic structures, Dunlevie employs the traditional and simple tools of collage – scissors and paste – in her canvases. Her art making harkens back to the cut and paste activities that we all so fondly remember from kindergarten – a wrinkle in time for adults.

The most recent canvases reflect a subtle but dramatic shift in Dunlevie’s compositions. In earlier work, she would use paint to blur the borders between the photographs. The combination of photography and realistic painting initially masked the incongruities within the work. More recently however, she has abandoned the paint and continued to simplify the compositions. Vertiginous and confusing vantage points have been replaced by fragmented labyrinths that are seemingly a bit more logical. For example, Daybreak, Sunlight with Fern, Joy Good, Syncopated Swimming, and the monumental Archaeology of Faith are still composed by using multiple perspectives. However, they are easier to discern, with approachable spaces and recognizable objects. It just feels like you are seeing them through a broken mirror. In contrast, Hotel Astor appears to be a straightforward depiction of a city street in New Orleans. The incongruities within the scene are not immediately discernable. Only upon prolonged inspection do they slowly begin to emerge from the composition. And yet, in an effort to retain the veracity of the image, the viewer struggles to impose some kind of perspectival logic on the scene. In her most recent canvas, Chez Foulard, Dunlevie has further simplified her composition. As in Hotel Astor, she has eliminated the fragmented shards to present an interior still life that initially appears completely logical and straightforward. Although Chez Foulard contains far fewer images than any of her other works, it is perhaps the most compelling and mysterious.

Dunlevie’s digital works represent a dramatic shift in her approach. Instead of using real scissors and paste, she has digitally collaged these images in Photoshop. Working with pre-existing stencil shapes from the software program, Dunlevie has layered disparate images to create each of these pieces. Through the stenciled shapes that pierce the dominant image, the viewer catches glimpses of the images beneath. However, Dunlevie does not provide us with enough information to determine what those might be. In these mysterious works, her deception is fully realized. These seamlessly grafted compositions, which seem to capture parallel universes, most perfectly distort the notion of space and time.

[1], March 12, 2009, “Art Talk with Kathryn Dunlevie,” by Brian Sherwin.

KATHRYN  DUNLEVIE                                                                  CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLAGE

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