We take photographs to record and document our lives: a child's birthday party, a daughter's graduation, a son's wedding, that trip to Graceland two years ago. Photographs authenticate our memory; they are proof that the moment really happened, that those people existed in that place and at that time, and that we were there, too. Photographs are inextricably bound with the past and memory, with nostalgia and desire. During the floods that recently ravaged Houston, again and again people interviewed by television reporters insisted that family photographs, lost or recovered or spared, meant more to them than the furniture piled on the lawn. These souvenirs (the French noun means "memory") of lives and loved ones are precious because we know that, as Lady Bird Johnson once observed, "Memory is not a faithful servant." Though loath to admit it, we know time fades our memories.
The photographs of Dornith Doherty, now on view at James Gallery in an exhibition titled "Liquid," are like souvenirs of memories we didn't know were ours. Inspired by a love of the natural world, her meticulously composed pictures present us with layered, multi-textured surfaces and meanings. They draw us in with their beauty and complexity while resisting us with their mystery. Most contain elements of landscape; some echo 19th-century botanical specimen prints; all use the vocabulary of still life to create richly imagined dreamscapes.
A Houston native now living and teaching in Dallas, Doherty studied French and Spanish language and literature as an undergraduate at Rice. Not surprisingly, perhaps, surrealism and its Latin American godchild, magical realism, inform her work. It's a strange and wondrous world she presents in her photographs, but a familiar one as well.
In one of the smaller photographs (all works are untitled and dated 2001), a few dried stalks sprout from a bed of tangled scraps of carefully cut lines of text from a book. The stalks cast their shadows on a fine gauzy curtain, through which a mountain looms in the middle distance. The whole tableau is suffused with a sepia light, and minute specks from the nodules that top the stalks seem to float in the air. Are those specks the product of disintegration, or spores cast off to continue the vital processes? And the scraps of text -- nurturing? or choking?
In another work, a plant is splayed in the foreground, clumps of dirt surrounding it, as if the plant had been smashed against a hard surface. At the top of the picture, a large florid feather swirls out of this destruction. Behind, a tree rises along the right margin, while the background is filled in with a blue pattern suggestive of a Van Gogh sky. And hovering in the upper right-hand corner is a -- what? A roundish, misshapen little ball that looks vaguely organic and hangs over this scene like a blasted moon, throwing its shadow on the Van Gogh sky. Like the surrealists, Doherty intuitively juxtaposes unrelated, seemingly incompatible objects to produce a creative vertigo, to upset certainties and to startle the viewer to insights into fundamental aspects of life and the world.
Ambiguity runs through Doherty's work, an ambiguity born of a close awareness of, and attention to, the rhythms of life and nature. One of the largest photographs here fairly explodes with a profligate fertility. In this particular work, there's no point in talking about background and foreground, as the flowers and leaves and water and whatnot surge and seethe across the picture plane. Immediately, you respond to the beauty and luxuriance of these strange, lurid flowers. Then disquiet seeps in. That long tubular shape in the lower right-center, lying along that blossom -- is that a worm? No, it seems to be a part of the blossom. But wait -- over there -- behind that leaf. Doesn't that look like the head of a snail? And this big bloom at the top -- what is that, in the center, that looks like an open sore? In all this profusion and beauty and vitality, there's an apprehension of the decay and disorder that hasn't set in yet but is nevertheless present in the blooming.
It should be noted that none of the photographs in this show have been digitally manipulated; the only digital image is, oddly enough, the least complex visually. Doherty brings all the elements together before picking up her camera, and there's a how'd-she-do-that aspect that plays into the surreal poetry of these images. One element common to several works is water; in one of these, a trail of white flowers seems to drift on a current down the center of the picture, with screen- patterned patches of light glinting just underneath, giving you a sense of the depth of the water. You'd be forgiven if you took the dark background for silt or something equally mundane. But you look closer and suddenly realize -- butterfly wings! It's another improbably marvelous juxtaposition, all the more wondrous since the wings appear to be perfectly at home in the water.
The Greek god of love and sexual desire, Eros (before he morphed into a chubby little cherub the Romans called Cupid), was seen as a powerful, primeval force, the personification of the vital principle. His associates were Pothos (longing) and Himeros (desire). Early in the century we just left, when Freud needed a principle to oppose Thanatos, the self-directed death instinct, he turned to Eros, the life force, which could be messy but was still effective in countering the nihilism of self-destructive violence. With this in mind, Dornith Doherty's photographs are charged with erotic energy and shot through with longing and desire, the source of all nostalgia, whether for homeland, home or loved ones, lost or merely elsewhere. Even the nostalgia for that original idealized home, a garden that was also home to a serpent.
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