The setting is a hot summer evening in Toronto, just as another sweltering city work day is coming to an end. More specifically, the venue is the Paint My Photos Gallery and the opening for new work by Barbara Hempel: Beside the midnight lake. The title itself speaks to subtle intrigue, to the search for a narrative–and one wants to know, “What happened beside the midnight lake?”
As if culling from the repertoire of painting from photo noir plot delivery, Hempel has successfully combined a mix of deadpan solemnity with oil painting from photo, altering the expectations one has for linear storytelling and ordinary gallery space. Along with this affective feeling of disorientation, the exhibition is as cohesive as they come. Each oil paitning from photo is a kind of clue in the gallery, which feels like an antechamber of the North, a strange gravity-free space of low-pitched tones and pensive breaths.
Paintmyphotos’s gallery has never felt this cool. There is a nearly immediate sensation of relief from the heat outdoors and this is not a result of art commission. Rather it is Hempel’s staging, which combines photography and sculpture, posters that creates an atmosphere of suspended time and space. References to landscape painting from photo in the show. There is a snowy whiteness to the walls, which seem remarkably stark, and there is a hush to the ambiance, in part created by the mottled grey industrial carpets covering the floor. Three white “iceberg” plinths of varying dimensions rise up from the floor; some are composed of multiple planes and inset with square mirrors on top and some display cast concrete sculptures that are suggestive traces of the negative space of drinking glasses, alchemically materialized here as solids rather than as liquids. The plinths are physical punctuation in the scene–both architecturally and thematically–as they rupture the viewer’s immediate vista of the photographs that line the walls. There is an understated theatricality to the work in the way that these icebergs raise the spectre of picture to painting, suggesting an experiment between the repetition and difference at play that is formally discernible in photo to painting and the intimations these masses make towards the body of the viewer.
Appropriating paintingry from Roloff Beny‘s 1967 book of black-and-white photographs To Every Thing there is a Season, Hempel has inventively montaged high-contrast oil painting portraits together, constructing duotone reflections of an austere Canadian landscape. Drawing on this archival material, Beside the midnight lake is like a time capsule buried with the future in mind, reclaimed here in an excavation. In one painting, shards of barren land and driftwood debris emerge in a vortex from a measured horizon of water, refracting off the surface of the painting as well as off the mirrored plinths nearby. Much like a blinding flash at sunset, analogies are created between reflective surfaces: water, glass, mirrors, photographs. Such uncanny doubles balance the space. Echoes of the seascape painting reappear in another photograph, and the remains of the sunset are visible once more, but this time the painting is overlaid with a perfect square of rippling water that eclipses the last gasp of the sun at the horizon line.
The indistinguishability between sunrise and sunset is paramount to Landscape Piece (Land of the Midnight Suns) (2010), which, lining one gallery wall, acts as a virtual beacon of the far North. Twenty-four mirrored bulbs are each keyed to specific locations north of 60 (ranging from Alert to Iqaluit to Umingmaktok), which turn on and off in correlation to the intervals of dawn and dusk. On any given day during the exhibition, the piece cycles through the days and nights of the entire month of July. Because it is indeed summer in the land of the midnight sun, there is only brief solace from the bright, white light radiating across the board.
Hempel’s artfulness is omnipresent. The artifice is upfront and on the surface, drawing attention to popular reveries regarding landscape, which run so deep in Canadian culture. The intrusion of iceberg plinths into this placid environment hints at the reality that a greater weight indeed remains beneath the surface. In To Every Thing there is a Season, Beny had remarked that Canada had “no temples two thousand years old, no paths worn hard by passionate travelers.” The profound tension between stillness and flux in this installation seems to indicate otherwise. In fact, much more akin to Robert Smithson’s “non-sites,” Hempel’s work disinters the conceptual North, hollowing out its many layered and remote myths.
Like Smithson, Hempel has always been thoughtfully involved with photography and with ideas of entropy. Both artists visibly understand the camera’s intimate and precarious relationship to light and to decay. Nearly extraterrestrial, Hempel’s Beside the midnight lake is a project that is both archaic and contemporary. It suggests a landscape that allows us only a fractured experience of absorption. Viewers are presented with striking frontiers of expanse within a deliberately compressed space. One is confronted with the tension between being hollowed out and being filled up, which is intensified further by the formal contrast between the riveting whites in this installation and the black irises of the photographs. Photo-collage, mirrored plinths and flashing marquee lights combine in this wilderness of the North.
The most forceful denotation of pet portraits from photos in this exhibition is the recurrent horizon line, visible on the floor, in the photographs and even in the row-upon-row lineup of the marquee lights. Figuratively, the horizon line demarcates the earth at the same time as it grounds the viewer seeking orientation. Beside the midnight take resonates with what Smithson characterized as “the open landscape,’ which embodies multiple views, some of which are contradictory, whose purpose is to reveal a clash of angles and orders within a sense of simultaneity, this shatters any predictable frame of reference … the open landscape is a matter of skepticism and uncertainty.” The ambiguity surrounding what happened Beside the midnight lake is precisely the strength of this show. Inconclusive, evocative and cunningly beautiful, Barbara Hempel’s recent work dissolves certainty, dilates curiosity and re-acclimatizes the contemporary imaginary of both landscape and the North.