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Review – Lisa Stinner

Lisa Stinner – Vague Terrain
Platform Gallery
April 13 – May 25, 2007

This is a compact, dense and surprisingly complex exhibition of twelve, 30” x 40” colour images by photographer, Lisa Stinner. Vague Terrain, the title of both the show and its accompanying catalogue, is a deceptively simple, yet clever guide to or, perhaps better, implicator for, the experience to come. A word play, a witty reversal of the not easily translatable French, terrain vague, once grasped, it becomes a conceptual touchstone for the layered interplay of ideas that rise and recede  throughout the show. The term terrain vague is most usually associated with Spanish architect, critic and theorist, Ignasi de Solà-Morales Rubio. Put as simply as possible in English, it refers to marginalized, often neglected and usually aesthetically indeterminate, interstitial, urban spaces: such things as industrial wastelands, demolition sites, parking lot in-fills and in some minds, even new, suburban developments. As Québec architect Luc Lévesque has made clear, however, in French at least, the term is more meaningfully redolent and as such, can justifiably elicit a broad spectrum of interpretation and response. These range from the harshly negative: that being economically unproductive, such marginalized banalities are a blight upon the landscape to be “normalized” as quickly as possible, to a more hopeful view that sees in them sites of creative potential and imaginative freedom. In general, I suspect that photographers tend to subscribe more to the latter than the former, although I doubt that such a positive attitude can ever fully survive the application of even a modest dose of intelligent reflection. A good thing too, I say for as is amply demonstrated in Lisa Stinner’s work, in the final analysis it makes the conflicted results of their efforts much richer and far more interesting.

The challenge for photography is that it owes much of its status to its capacity for exploiting the banal. This has been especially true for colour photography’s status as art and yet, as I look at Stinner’s photographs, I cannot help thinking that photography accords the banal a similar benefit. By now, everyone I’m sure must be wearyingly familiar with Susan Sontag’s oft-quoted observation that given enough time, all photographs become equally significant. Of course, what Sontag meant by this was not that significance is inherent to photographs per se, but rather to each and every photograph’s unique spatial and temporal relationship with its content. No medium but photography is capable of so deftly raising the profile of even the most humdrum of subjects or of saying so clearly, look here, pay attention, this particular confluence of matter and time, matters and thus, by extension, that they all matter. It is hardly surprising then that photographers should be drawn to the banal or, as in this case, to its terrain vague variant.

Stinner is not content with this, however. That neat flip of the term terrain vague, to which I earlier referred, inevitably creates a whole new level of possibility for while in French, the conjunction of the words, terrain and vague reference very real and recognizable geographic phenomena, the inverted pairing in English, being bound by no such allegiance of established use, offers up a far richer vein of metaphoric potential. As Eudora Welty argued in writing of possibly the pre-eminent contemporary photographer of the banal, William Eggleston, (Welty, Eudora. William Eggleston: The Democratic Forest. 176 pp. with 151 color plates. New York, Doubleday,1989.), “…[his photographs] focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world! When you see what the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say…”. The other benefit of not being tied to a predefined concept is an expanded subject potential and Stinner takes full advantage of this. Of the twelve photographs in the show – five fewer than are listed in the catalogue incidentally – the subject of only one, an irresistibly beautiful image of a mound of ruderal poppies, clearly falls within the realm of exemplary terrain vague. The subjects of the others, drawn variously from North American and European garden shows and vacated office and house interiors, bring to mind more the supermodernist ideas of French social critic, Marc Augé who posits a distinction between “place”, a site creative of social life and distinguished by symbols of memory, and “non-place”, where individuals are connected only in a uniform manner and where the full, organic development of any meaningful social life appears either impossible or at best, extremely limited.

Despite their conceptual density, the formal structuring of Stinner’s images appears effortlessly simple, a testament to her skills as a picture-maker. She knows as well as any how to order the large masses of colour, texture and form that appear consistently throughout her work. What’s impressive is that Stinner never permits these formal qualities to overwhelm or too noticeably intrude upon the content. This is no mean feat at the best of times and little short of remarkable when picturing such un-peopled subjects that, for the most part, evidence little or no real identity. The overwhelming impression from viewing the show is one of façade and impermanence. Almost everything seems temporary, artificial or formulaic, devoid or drained of memory, a fragment of the bland, cookie-cutter mediocrity that characterizes the increasingly invasive culture of globalization. Exceptions or, more accurately, resistant contra-indications to this apparent thematic through-line appear within at least three images, however, and present elements that in their clear suggestion of loss, expand, deepen and even transform the interpretive potential of the exhibit. Two photographs show vacated office interiors that feature the palimpsestial residue of picture frames and furniture, the mute, photogramic evidence of a departed human presence. In the foreground of one is a pot containing the dying remains of an apparently abandoned plant. A third photograph of what seems to be the interior of a 1960’s-style house, shows a much healthier houseplant standing in a corner on a plastic chair of similar period. Beside it, through an opening, is a half-stripped wall of foliage-patterned wallpaper.

These photographs, so carefully positioned in the hanging, counterpoint the other images in the exhibit as a fugal interplay of ideas, layering and over- layering in a way that while intellectually exhilarating, in its denouement, is ultimately and unavoidably, depressing. In an interview with Suzanne Frank only two years before his death in 2001, Ignasi de Solà-Morales Rubio suggested that, “…looking at the present we have globalism, we don’t have permanent structure; we have a condition where everything is shifting and changing and provisional… a kind of floating condition. …” (http://www.scielo.cl/pdf/arq/n49/art38.pdf). Whether intentional or not, what Solà-Morales Rubio describes is the physical, emotional and psychological state of the refugee, the real “vague terrain” that Stinner so brilliantly condenses to metaphor in this wonderful, poetic, sad little show.

Richard Holden