Making and Taking “inside out”

inside out: Sarah Crawley and William Eakin
February 24 – March 18, 1995

a response to the exhibition  by Cliff Eyland

Most of us merely “take” a picture–we’re happy with whatever comes back from the drug store. Artists and other professional photographers, however, “make” photographs. The photograph is not a window on unvarnished reality, and we all know that the striking, “spontaneous” image of a battle or a disaster we see on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press or the Sun is probably a carefully cropped, dodged and digitally or manually manipulated image which has been picked out of innumerable contact sheets.

Neither Crawley nor Eakin has used computer morphing, collage, photomontage techniques, or elaborate studio set-ups to make the work in inside/out. Sarah Crawley takes photographs of Winnipeg houses and William Eakin takes pictures of selected items from his vast personal collection of kitsch, and so both adhere to a tradition of photography in which a more-or-less empirical record of an existing object is presented.

But compare the suburban Winnipeg houses in a local real estate guide to Crawley’s. She exploits light leaks (no less an empirical record of light than anything else in her photographs) and the distortions which are endemic to her $14.99 Holga camera when exposing film, and then she employs a beautifully painterly printing technique to imbue her light-leaking houses with radioactive glamour and dread.

One is not exactly afraid of Crawley’s houses, of course, however creepy (pun intended) they are, just as one is not afraid of the dark corners of film noire. Crawley’s subject matter is ordinary, but her photographs can arouse suspense, an expectation that something extraordinary is about to happen. It as if Crawley were saying “See this ordinary house? In the next picture you’ll see it blow up.” Crawley uses a technical means to make her subject strange.

Eakin has to do very little, by contrast, to make his subject matter strange. He does not exploit deliberate “accidents” in the technical process of creating his photographs the way Crawley does. I think that the kitsch he photographs is naturally weird (forgive me if “naturally weird” is an oxymoron), and the manipulated scale of the items which Eakin photographs can make them look even weirder. Sometimes, for example, a plate appears in a black void like a planet, whereas elsewhere another plate runs off the print so that a minor detail becomes the focus of Eakin’s subtle eye.

I like to think that an important “made” aspect of Eakin’s photographs is his fascinating personal collection of kitsch (which viewers at Ace Art merely get a taste of in this exhibition). Over the years, Eakin has created a small museum in his studio which consists of thousands of carefully boxed and bagged things including a bag full of little Campbell’s soup tins, trophies of every conceivable type, a plastic vase in the shape of an Easter Island figure, cookie tins, candy containers, and much more. Eakin makes his collection, and then the collection almost makes the photographs. Eakin is, in effect, the staff photographer of his own museum.

The combination of prints in this exhibition is another important “made” rather than “taken” aspect of this work. Crawley and Eakin collaborated with Ace Art curator Sigrid Dahle in a mixing and matching exercise which put Eakin’s sober black and white photographs into sets with Crawley’s garish colour prints. The works appear in various combinations, and in none. The largest set is a group of seven-houses-in-a-row by Crawley, while the smallest are single images by Eakin.

(There is a curatorial parallel to photographic “taking” and “making.” It involves a curator accepting a show from elsewhere the way a photographer might accept whatever image her camera produces. A curator can also metaphorically “take” an exhibition by simply giving over all of the details of installation and conceptualization to the artists. That is not what has happened here, I understand, because Sigrid Dahle was a catalyst and a collaborator in the combination and intermixing of Eakin and Crawley’s work.)

Some of the photographic combinations in this show evoke disjointed narratives. Eakin’s Flamenco dancers look like they have just stamped across one of Crawley’s Winnipeg door steps, for example. Maybe the inhabitant of a Crawley house once owned the Niagara Falls plaque that appears in the Eakin photograph positioned adjacent to it–one can easily imagine it on the den wall.

The combinations that I think are most successful resist oversimplified readings: for example, one set combines a Crawley photograph of a fenced-in Winnipeg house with an Eakin photograph of a very odd plaque. In the plaque, a working thermometer and a relief of a doe and fawn encircle a mounted photograph of a modernist building which, as the plaque’s label shows, is in Regina. One could puzzle over this Eakin/Crawley combination for hours; the ordinary Winnipeg house and the Regina souvenir quickly begin to look like anthropological relics from some unknown planet.

(This is my second mention of the word “planet.” Eakin’s work sometimes prompts interplanetary similes because of his habit of isolating an object in a void. One Eakin photograph in this exhibition makes this point explicitly. It depicts a “Jerry Lewis Telethon” sticker or platter floating in black space. Behind Jerry’s face is a graphic image of the planet earth.)

An Eakin photograph of a framed photo of a crowded football stadium is placed between two Crawley photographs of ominous-looking houses with blackened window panes. In this work, Crawley’s photos could have been snapped by a prowler while mom and dad were enjoying themselves at the game. Many of Crawley’s photographs look as if they were taken surreptitiously, and one feels like a voyeur. The kitsch in Eakin’s photographs is obviously the “inside” referred to in the exhibition’s title, the spoils of the prowler who sneaks around Crawley’s houses, the trinkets from the garage. In another combination, a Crawley photograph of a white house is placed beside an Eakin photograph of a costume jewellery pin. The pin appears to be as big as the house, and the jewelled words “1970/God Bless our Home/Winnipeg/Man.” suggest that the world from which Eakin and Crawley have conjured their photographs needs God’s serious attention.

If this exhibition is a vision of Winnipeg, it is a dark vision, however ironic. Either this dark vision is an accurate portrayal of Winnipeg (or one of its neighbourhoods), or it has been “made” in the sense that it is a carefully constructed fantasy of darkness, unease and irony. Perhaps such questions are for Winnipeg viewers to decide. Being new to the city, I prefer to think that Eakin, Crawley, and their curatorial collaborator Dahle are “making” rather than “taking” this dark view. After all, Winnipeg is a nice place, right?

Cliff Eyland is a Winnipeg painter, writer and curator