Almost everyone loves a good story. Stories give us the illusion of the existence of a method to the madness around us, and we love inventing them, telling them and sometimes twisting them to suit our version of reality. Angela Strassheim tells a multi-layered, multi-dimensional story in her exhibit Story Telling at the Andrea Meislin Gallery. There are some stories that she reveals and some that she leaves us, the audience, to figure out.
The Andrea Meislin Gallery has a very spacious yet homey feel. The architecture is minimalist, and the whiteness of the gallery’s floors and walls lends itself well to becoming the blank canvas that the exhibition is laid out on.
There is no individual lighting for individual exhibit pieces, leaving each piece slightly differently illuminated from the rest. The artificial lighting (a mix between warm orange and white lighting) is supplemented by natural daylight, coming in from the street through a strategic glass panel at the gallery front. The mix of orange and white light keeps the space from looking too clinical or closed in.
The gallery is U-shaped, with the reception at one end. The receptionist was friendly and welcoming, but didn’t offer any information unless asked. The exhibition started immediately and simultaneously on two walls facing each other: thereby not offering a clear or definite start or end point. It was almost as if the audience was let loose in the space created by the exhibition, to piece the pictures together at will – much like the evidence at a crime scene. I found this to be a recurring theme of the exhibition: a freedom to let the audience construct their own narrative, surrounded by the depiction of multiple physical spaces within (and outside) the American home.
One of the exhibition pictures was actually situated behind the receptionist – again emphasizing the homey feel of the gallery, with the exhibition spilling over to the area that the public may not have otherwise ventured into. Strangely, this was a very apt underscore to the content of the exhibition, as it revealed the inside of an American home – seemingly perfect at first glance but with disturbing undertones.
The framing of the photographs complemented their content: the color pictures of the American home space were framed in white. The black and white shots of (what I perceived as) the same space were framed in black. The photographs framed in white had life in them – either in the form of human subjects or fish. The ones framed in black were of empty spaces. The exhibit also included five LED light-boxes, with back-lit prints of human hearts – all thickly framed in black. If one is to associate black with the emptiness of the other black-framed photographs, then the human hearts would fit within the space of the dead – perhaps an autopsy or a police investigation, rather than signifying life.
The exhibition flow was designed to be non-linear. There was a deliberate lack of standardisation in the framing as well as the type of art at display: the exhibit displayed 13 photographs, 5 light-boxes and a multi-sensory installation of a grandmother’s closet. The contents of the exhibition were selected by the artist from four separate collections, as well as one installation: Pause, Evidence, Left Behind and Hearts. However, the exhibit was designed to tell a story as a whole – for this particular selection of photographs and installations, in this particular space. The layout of the exhibition enabled the audience to explore the inside of an American family home, but the color photographs of the subjects in their homes were interrupted by black and white photographs of (what looked like) crime scenes.
The first set of four photographs (all arranged on the same wall) could serve as a starting point for the exhibition: two are in color and two are black and white. All four contain rectangular frames within frames: implying that there are multi-layered narratives and perhaps subconsciously encouraging the audience to look closer for the stories within, behind and beyond the frames.
The contents of the next set of four photographs: a father and son, the set of five lightbox hearts, a child playing and a grandmother. The similarity in the appearance of the father and son is echoed in the similarity of the hearts: they are similar, but not identical. The father and son have different hair colors, and different designs in their red ties. The hearts are all slightly different in their shapes, sizes and causes of death (only one out of the four is healthy). The theme of life and death (and the fragility of life) is unifying: it links the hearts exhibit to the photograph of the child playing with a butterfly, and then to the photograph of a grandmother (implying the cycle of life). The grandmother’s portrait carries over the use of the “frame within a frame” technique used earlier, but with more deliberation. There is a frame behind the grandmother, which is a mirror reflecting another photo frame on the opposite wall – with a depiction of Jesus Christ. The grandmother has her hands folded in her lap, much like Jesus.
The grandmother’s portrait immediately gives way to the grandmother’s closet installation. The “crime scene” feel of the black and white photographs is echoed by the “look but don’t touch” feel of the closet of an absent person. The preservation of the contents of the closet imply that the piece is nostalgic, encapsulating memories of a loved one who may not be alive anymore – like the hearts which look like hearts, but are not pumping blood anymore. Both represent an empty shell, a remnant of what once served a living function. The TV situated in the closet serves as a reminder of the “frame within a frame”. The exhibit emphasizes the color white: the whiteness of the shirts worn by the father and son duo in the earlier photograph is echoed in the whiteness of the curtain in the “Butterfly” photograph, and again in the whiteness of the closet doors of the installation.
The “frame within a frame” technique continues over the next set of photographs – Untitled (Horses), Untitled (Garage) and Untitled (Isabel at the window): a girl is framed in a window, a family is framed within a car and a girl undressing is framed at a window. The three photographs are also all linked by light: the girl child is bathed in light from the window, the family in the car are illuminated, and the girl is undressing at a brightly lit window (enabling the outsider/voyeur to see her).
The final two photographs link back to previous photographs in the exhibition – thereby creating the laying effect of the multi-dimensional narrative. Untitled (Story Telling) depicts boys dressed in identical military gear, linking it to the earlier photograph of the father and son: implying authority, standardization. The third and final black and white photograph (Evidence # 3) concludes the exhibition (except for the photo above the receptionist’s desk). The contents are similar to the first two black and white photographs – the depiction of empty, familiar home spaces.